Judith Haase, 76, wouldn’t think of missing her time in the pool. Swimming helped her recover from stage III breast cancer. (Contributed by: Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University)

Healthy Aging: Fitness programs help cancer survivors in recovery

Fitness has always had a high priority for Judith Haase, 76, of Sandy Springs. And swimming has always been her go-to exercise. She loves the solitude and the good feeling she has after an hour in the pool.

So when the retired nurse was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in 2013, her fitness routine helped get her through the physical and mental challenges of treatment and recovery.

“I swam all through chemo,” she said.

Exercise is another weapon in the fight against cancer, and that’s why no matter their age, survivors are sure to get a doctor’s prescription to “get moving.” Being physically active is linked to better outcomes for cancer survivors, helping in fitness, weight control, fatigue, anxiety and a multitude of other quality of life measures, according to the American Cancer Society.

As Survivorship Program director for the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, Joan Giblin has always advised clients to get moving post-treatment. But when they would ask where to go for help, she had no central place to send them.

A few years ago, armed with a financial gift, Giblin met with the YMCA of Metro Atlanta in the hopes of forming a partnership program that would help cancer patients with their recovery. The outcome has been the successful Winship at the Y cancer support program. Using the Y’s “coach approach” system, clients receive one-on-one help from a wellness coach trained by Winship in cancer recovery.

“It’s been the perfect partnership,” Giblin said.

Clients meet with their coaches monthly for six months, and set long-term and short-term goals for fitness and nutrition. Together, they come up with a plan of action for the month, which can involve working out at the Y, joining fitness classes, or even doing something at home on their own. The Y offers multiple fitness classes specific for senior adults.

The cancer support program was recently expanded to include patients from Gwinnett Medical Center and is offered at all 18 metro area YMCAs. And any adult cancer survivor can join Winship at the Y and receive a 20 percent reduction in their YMCA membership.

“The real goal is to get cancer survivors exercising,” said Jennifer Rewkowski, director of program management for the YMCA of Metro Atlanta.

Many survivors try to get back to their normal activity level immediately, and that isn’t a reality, Giblin said. Others are hesitant to do anything physical because of what they’ve been through.

“The coaches help with this. They get it,” Giblin said.

Thousands run to fight cancer

Wellness coach Bill Fallin of the Carl E. Sanders Family YMCA at Buckhead said coaches build rapport and trust to help their clients build the “exercise habit.”

“We already know that a large percentage of new and returning exercisers (65 percent) drop out within the first 3 to 6 months without assessments and guidance designed specifically for them. How much more so a senior cancer survivor with the added stress of the battle with cancer,” he said.

Finding an activity that you enjoy is key to recovering fitness levels and going beyond. Those who get hooked are the ones who stick with it, Giblin said.

Haase, who was a swimmer well before her diagnosis, joined Winship at the Y during her treatment, but now swims regularly at the Dunwoody Baptist Church fitness center. She also participates in U.S. Master’s swim meets and has qualified for the 2017 National Senior Games this summer in Birmingham, Ala.

Haase said after battling through surgery, chemo, radiation and reconstruction, she also had to fend off anxiety and depression. “You worry about it coming back and how you’re going to handle it,” she said.

That’s when the pool looks especially inviting and washes away the worry.

“Exercise helps a lot,” she said. “When I’m in the pool, it’s a Zen-like thing. I just keep my eyes on the line at the bottom of the pool.”

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