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Never walk road alone: Cancer survivors stick together in YMCA Livestrong class

Written By Mary Jane Skalka of Kearney Hub

Joyce Munnell never had used a fitness machine. She’d never even attempted to swim. But after she was treated for cancer 18 months ago, she took the plunge and signed up for the new trademarked program call Livestrong at the YMCA, a 12-week program for cancer survivors at the Kearney Family YMCA at 4500 Sixth Ave.

At age 80, Munnell was the oldest in the class. She completed it Dec. 12. Along with her course certificate, she has nine new friends and a new determination to stay fit. “If you’re going to do something, you need to do it as good as you can,” she said. “But you’re never expected to do more than you can do,” she said.

The free program meets for 90 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks. Its focus is fitness and wellness, with a focus on cardio and lifting, diet and nutrition and even shoes. “This is so important because cancer survivors can have numbness in their feet,” Brooke White, the instructor, said.

“Our emphasis is the whole person, mind, body and spirit. It’s not just physical. If we’ve done our job properly, by the end of the class, we have allowed them to get a piece of the person they used to be back, or find a new piece they didn’t know they had,” White said.

The class included a demonstration on yoga, a rowing demonstration from Aqua Zumba and even a spiritual component. “They’re not out running, but we take this a little farther and expand their horizons,” White added.

“The program is for anyone who has had cancer. Once you’re diagnosed with cancer, you are a survivor,” Cindy Mangels, the associate executive director of the YMCA, said. People who still are in treatment need the approval of their doctors; those finished with treatment do not.

The registration process is rather lengthy. Registrants must provide their medical history, treatments and much more. “We have to find out a lot of information so we can tailor the program to the individuals,” White said.

A select group

For the Kearney Family YMCA, landing the program was a coup. Kearney is one of just 25 YMCAs in the U.S. that offers it. Livestrong is a registered trademark of the LIVESTRONG Foundation, a non-profit organization. It is based at the YMCA of the USA in Austin, Texas.

Kearney’s Y applied in the fall of 2017. The foundation examined the Y’s finances, facilities and how it would sustain the program. The Kearney Y was approved, but without funding. It’s one of just five of the 25 YMCA’s that have the program that had to raise its own funds. The $11,000 raised in the Give Where You Live event Dec. 6 went to this program. Five Kearney organizations — CHI Health Cancer Center, The Buckle, Family Physical Therapy, TEAM Physical Therapy and Contemporary Obstetrics & Gynecolory — help support the program.

After approval, “We had to commit to put the steps in place,” Mangels said. Three YMCA staffers, including Mangels and Executive Director Denny Placzek, went to Chicago for training, not once but twice. They also had to complete an “evidence-based health initiative,” which meant collecting health data from participants and feeding it to a national database. The hope is that future funding will be available from national sources.

The program also is part of the Y’s new initiative to support and help people with chronic diseases and prevention. “We want to be more than a gym and swim,” Dillon Nelson, the Y’s community engagement manager, said.

Mangels understood. “Every person is impacted by cancer. Everyone knows someone who has or had cancer,” she said. For her, it was her father, who died of cancer, and her mother, who recently was diagnosed. “I knew we had to have this. It offers a hope to get your quality of life back after treatment. Cancer doesn’t have to be the end of your life. It can be a new beginning,” she said.

She added that the YMCA is a “trusted” organization with the reputation for making a difference. But she sensed the need for this program because she’d been in the CHI Health Good Samaritan Cancer Center. She had been in the Heartland Oncology Center in Grand Island. She had visited with staff.

“But once they’re done with treatment, Kearney didn’t have anything to offer. When I heard about Livestrong at the YMCA, I knew we could bridge that gap and take cancer survivors another step further,” she said.

After just one session, it already has. The next class, due to start in late January, already is full and has a waiting list.

The program will be offered three times a year. The next is scheduled to begin at the end of January. “The end result is we’ll take someone who has just finished his or her last round of chemotherapy, or hasn’t had chemo but is two or three years beyond cancer but they haven’t continued to work out. For all of them, the mental aspect is quite the same.

“The need is huge,” Mangels said.

Munnell can speak to the need. “I had never been exposed to any of the machines or the swimming pool. Everything we did was all new to me,” she said. She signed up simply because she’d turned 80 and could get a free YMCA membership at that age. She always had walked 30 minutes five days a week and just wanted a place to walk indoors. As she was signing up for membership, she asked about Livestrong. “I walked in at 1 p.m. to register and by 2:15, I was a Livestrong member,” she said.

The program has finished, but Mullen has not. She regularly visits the Y. She walks for 15 minutes, then works on machines for the upper and lower body. “I did wonderfully. I improved wonderfully,” she said. “I am stronger. I learned new things. I saw new people twice a week and got out of the house. I have nine new friends.” Now that the program is finished, they plan to meet at Perkins once a month to stay connected.

“Everyone has the opportunity to help someone and make a change in someone else’s life,” said Nelson, who often works at the front desk. “I got to see them all come in. This class has been a life changer at the Y. This was the most fun bunch we’ve had in a long time. They made us smile. I saw them go through a major change from the first class,” he said.

White said that Mullen was “quiet and apprehensive” at first, “and now Joyce is one of the people I can sit down and talk to. It was exciting to talk to them and hear their stories,” she added.

“This is exactly what the Y is here for. We are here for the community. We want to change people’s lives, but they change ours, too,” Dillon said.

The final session, when graduates received diplomas, they brought their families. “That was a tough night for me,” Mullen admitted. “I had an awakening. We’re all in the same boat. It’s a boat that not everyone has to be in, but you realize these people know where you’ve been. I’d been with them, just three months, and three months isn’t that long.”

White added: “It’s a mental aspect. It’s realizing you’re not alone.”

Mullen said she could tell the group how she felt and “they all understand. We were all there for each other.”

Added Nelson: “They were all there for each other.”