Women’s Cancer Group Offers Support and Sisterhood
May 11, 2011
by Dina Gerdeman
The Patriot Ledger
Kim Madigan wanted to regain the ability to do the little things: shake out her down comforter, haul a bag of groceries, open and close the windows in her Milton home.
Madigan had eight surgeries - including a double mastectomy - in 2007 following her breast cancer diagnosis, and months later she was still recovering, dealing with soreness and a lack of mobility and strength.
"One day it was pouring down rain, and I couldn't get my windows closed," Madigan, now 48, said. "I had to call my neighbors to come help me. I was crying. It was awful." When Madigan walked into Fitness Unlimited in Milton, she was skeptical about whether a fitness trainer could help her, and she had doubts about whether she would feel comfortable in a gym, especially with her physical limitations following surgery.
"I was never a gym rat even before my surgeries," she said. "I had never really exercised a day in my life and didn't even know how to exercise." But Madigan was amazed by how quickly she started feeling better after she began working with cancer exercise specialist Laury True Hale, at first one on one, and soon afterward by signing up for one of Hale's fitness classes, which are designed specifically for cancer survivors.
Those exercise classes are free, thanks to the Cancer Community Renewal Project. Carol Lundin, founder of the nonprofit organization, said the project provides personal training, exercise classes and even massages for female cancer survivors as well as their caretakers. Fitness Unlimited donates the exercise space and equipment, and the project pays Hale to hold the two exercise classes, which started last November.
The classes are small - with five to 10 people apiece - and Hale starts by providing cancer survivors with a fitness assessment to discuss a person's physical limitations and concerns.
"I have had people in tears who say they don't trust their bodies anymore. They don't know what they can and can't do," Hale said. "It can be lonely to try to do this on their own. They need help."
Lundin, whose sister died of breast cancer in 1991 at age 44, started the Cancer Community Renewal Project in 2000 in Oregon, where she lived from 2000 to 2007. She became familiar with a group of female cancer survivors who were struggling to deal with medical bills and were reluctant to pay for exercise classes or massages, and she knew they would immediately benefit from the program. She decided to focus on providing free exercise classes partly because studies show that moderate exercise two to three times a week can reduce a person's risk of cancer recurrence by as much as 50 percent. And she opened the classes up to caretakers, knowing that they needed a boost as well.
Lundin held several fundraisers to support the project in Oregon - and she even rode her bike cross-country for 561/2 days to raise money. In 2004, four years after starting the project, Lundin was diagnosed with breast cancer herself at the age of 46.
"That's when I learned firsthand the benefits of what we were doing," she said. "When it happens to you, you feel as if your body has let you down. It takes you a while to get over that emotionally. This allows women to do something that's life-affirming. And it isn't just free exercise and yoga. It's the circle of support." Lundin, 53, who lives in Norwell, continued to operate the Oregon program and started a Massachusetts project in the summer of 2009. She read about Hale's work with cancer survivors in The Patriot Ledger, and the two women teamed up in an effort to see the project grow. In addition to the fitness classes, the project is planning walks, hikes and bike rides in the coming weeks.
Lundin and Hale have held fundraising bike rides to the Cape as well as indoor fundraisers, including a recurring one in which people pay $10 apiece to do a spin class while they watch a movie on Friday nights at the gym.
On March 12, the project held a Cycle for Life fundraiser at Fitness Unlimited, where people cycled on a stationary bike for up to three hours. The majority of the participants were there to support cancer survivors, but the whole back row was devoted to cancer survivors - and their bikes had pink balloons attached. The fundraiser brought in about $8,000 for the project.
"In that back row, a good handful of women stayed not just for the half hour they had planned on, but for another half hour," said Hale, 52, of Milton, who is also a survivor of melanoma. "And some even ended up doing the entire three hours. They were very proud, as they should have been." The project's exercise classes give cancer survivors a place they can go, not only to work on staying physically fit, but to connect with other women who know exactly what they're going through. The women share tips about finding the right jogging bra for implants, and they don't blink an eye if a woman prefers to exercise with a compression sleeve or without a prosthesis.
"We all have our post-traumatic stress that we're dealing with, and we all understand one another," Madigan said. "We always say we're not complaining, we're reporting. We are there for each other. We're all survivors and we're happy to be alive, but it helps to talk with other women who know how difficult it can be sometimes."
Liza Talusan, 35, of Brockton had a mastectomy in November as a preventive measure after testing positive for a gene that is linked with breast cancer following her sister's breast cancer diagnosis.
At first Talusan was terrified to lift any weights or stretch because she was still quite tender from her surgery, and she started crying during her first exercise class early this year. Hale and the other women in the class immediately provided comfort and reassurance.
"It was great to be surrounded by women who understood," she said.
Talusan said Hale seems to know exactly what Talusan needs - whether it's a push to do more or a pass to ease up.
"I don't know anyone in my life who strikes such a balance for me in a way I need," she said. "She's powerful, and she allows me to find the strength I need."
Talusan works at Stonehill College and said she could use the college's gym for free, but she chooses to make the 20-minute drive to Milton once a week because she knows she'll get something different out of Hale's exercise class.
"There are dozens of gyms within a 5-mile radius, but there's something about going there and knowing I'll see women who understand what I'm going through," she said. "One day my body felt sore and swollen and I didn't know what was going on, and the other women instantly said, ‘Oh, that's because it's raining. Your implants are reacting to the weather.' I never would have thought of that. It all made me feel as if I wasn't alone in this."
Although the women are getting a definite emotional lift from one another, the atmosphere is far different from a typical cancer support group meeting, Madigan said.
"It's a fitness setting. It's not like you're sitting around in a church at a support group meeting," Madigan said. "Those meetings can get so serious, so doom and gloom, and we're not like that. (In the fitness class), we're all laughing and people are healing their minds as well as their bodies. I leave there feeling euphoric."
Lundin noted that it can be scary for some women with cancer to walk into more traditional support group meetings and hear people talk about their cancer, especially when someone talks about a prognosis that is not good. And when those meetings are held in hospitals or treatment centers, "muscle memory" leads some women to automatically feel uncomfortable going to those places, Lundin said.
"Those meetings work for a lot of people, but not for everyone," Lundin said. "We wanted to offer something different. We wanted to surround survivors with life-affirming experiences that remind them that they still have some control over their bodies. When people do something that's physically difficult, then they start sharing their fears, and suddenly people feel OK talking about their emotions in a place that's safe."
For more information about the Cancer Community Renewal Project, go to www.cancer-renewal.org.
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.