BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Jean Mahoney expected to experience some side effects after her double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer.
What she didn’t expect is how fragile she would feel and how frightened she would be to become active again.
“When I was finished with all my radiation and surgery, I couldn’t load the dishwasher. My arm didn’t go that high,” Mahoney said. “Everything is broken. Nothing works. You’ve lost complete confidence in your body’s ability to do anything. You don’t know how to exercise, what to do.”
Then Mahoney heard a about a new cancer exercise program called The Journey Program. The free 10-week group exercise program for cancer survivors up to two years post-treatment aims to help participants regain confidence, independence and functionality after cancer.
“This is a program to get you strong and get you to do the things you want to do,” said Mahoney, who was so impressed with the program that afterwards she decided to become a certified personal trainer and now is the area’s only certified cancer exercise specialist.
Now she and business partner Annemarie Wigton, a certified personal trainer with a bachelor’s degree in health fitness in preventive and rehabilitative studies, are owners and directors of the five-year-old program. They recently expanded it from Traverse City to Frankfort.
Classes meet for an hour twice a week at Anytime Fitness in Traverse City and at the Betsie Hosick Health and Fitness Center in Frankfort. After a 10-minute warm-up, participants work with the women and personal trainer Jessica Carland on balance and form and on strength, cardio and core training.
“After cancer treatment, they’re so weak and tired. They don’t know their bodies anymore. It’s a loss of direction for many,” said Wigton. “This gives them confidence and independence so they can go on with their lives and feel they won’t hurt themselves.”
Before beginning the program, participants meet privately with a trainer to assess whether they are ready for the classes. Halfway through the program, they work on their own according to their specific needs, with supervision by the instructors. Wigton said most start seeing real results by the end of the 10 weeks.
Duane Merritt noticed a definite improvement after about six weeks.
“It’s very, very gradual,” said Merritt, who joined the program after undergoing radiation, chemotherapy and multiple surgeries for esophageal cancer and complications. “I just know that when I get on the machines now I have to work harder and longer to get my heart rate up.”
Merritt, 73, of Traverse City, said his main focus is on regaining his strength.
“You lose so much strength going through the cancer treatment. You think you’re fine until you go to do something that you used to do and find you can’t do it,” he said. “It’s affecting your quality of life at that point.”
Wigton said exercise for cancer patients can be different from general exercise and is structured to carry over into tasks of daily living, like lifting and climbing stairs. Instructors often have to work around issues from surgery and past injuries.
“Because of his esophageal cancer, Duane can’t like on his back.,” she said. “We have to adjust everything to make sure he can do it.”
Kathleen Hofmeister chose to forgo traditional treatment for breast cancer in favor of homeopathic treatment. Instead of undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she concentrated on diet changes, exercise, meditation, prayer, positive energy and homeophatic remedies like mudpacks, laser treatments and foot spas. The intensity of her efforts left her very weak.
“My balance went to pot, I felt like I was close to getting a cane. I had to hold on to the counter to bend,” said Hofmeister, 67, of Traverse City. “Anytime you devote that much energy to healing, you’re going to be weak.”
At about six weeks into The Journey Program, “I’m now just noticing a difference,” she said.
Mahoney said the program helps participants bridge the gap between being a cancer patient and a cancer survivor and creates a “new normal.”
“Everything about cancer is, ‘Hold still while I shove this poison in you,’ ‘It’s going to make you hurt,’ ‘Just bear it,’” she said. “Then I had this woman say, ‘Just exercise and you’ll feel better.’ It was an amazing feeling that I could do something that didn’t hurt and made me feel better. And that was empowering.”
She said research shows that exercise boosts the immune system, fights the fatigue and helps the depression associated with cancer and cancer treatment. As if that weren’t enough, group cancer exercise classes also function as a support group in which participants have an instant bond.
“If you have a heart attack, you go to cardiac rehab. if you have a stroke you immediately go to occupational or physical therapy. If you have cancer you have nothing,” she said. “I think it should be part of our standard of care for cancer patients.”
Summer sessions of The Journey Program start the week of June 24. The program is sponsored in Traverse City by FAST Physical Therapy and Anytime Fitness and in Frankfort by Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital.
For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org.