On Thanksgiving Day in 2013, Claire Johnson experienced so much pain, especially in her legs, she couldn’t even walk down the stairs of her home.
The now-71-year-old Middletown woman was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare type of cancer that attacks plasma cells and can damage bones, the immune system, kidneys and red blood cell count.
Cancer rendered the normally active senior much more sedentary, often sitting at home and watching television, she admitted.
Johnson has been cancer-free since 2014 and working on getting her life “completely” back to normal.
A big part of that is attending the LIVESTRONG program at the YMCA, a 12-week class that supports a growing number of cancer survivors.
Most of the people in the program offered in Middletown and other Delaware YMCA locations have completed their treatment and want to rebuild their lives.
The LIVESTRONG group Johnson participates in now is her second. She first took part in the 12-week program last year.
“This is a new normal,” she said. “It’s not like when I was in my 20s, but it is helping me so much. I’ve made a commitment to come.”
Middletown YMCA Executive Director David Halley said there are two aspects to the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program:
- Physical support, which is the strength and endurance training needed for the body. That includes cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, balance and flexibility.
- The social and emotional piece, in which survivors can develop supportive relationships and improve their quality of life by being with others who can share in their recovery.
Halley said 12 to 15 survivors participate in free customized exercise regimens catered to their individual needs by certified fitness instructors. The instructors are trained in cancer survivorship, post-rehabilitation exercise and supportive cancer care.
“A lot of cancer patients are only approved for so long for physical therapy afterward,” Halley said. But the need for help often lasts much longer if they want to return to the quality of life they had before being treated, he said.
The social-emotional aspect of the program is unique, Halley said. He believes people connecting with others who have struggled with cancer can talk about different symptoms they’ve had or bumps in the road to recovery.
“They feel like they are not alone,” he said. “They encourage each other and share ideas.”
Johnson comes to the Middletown YMCA two days a week. She likes the physical aspect of the program, which she says is helping her get stronger.
But she also gains strength from her connections to the others in the program.
“We all have to push to regain what we’ve lost,” she said. “Sometimes I feel down and don’t feel like coming, but when I get there I see I’m not alone.”
Gary Whalen finds himself in a similar situation.
The 76-year-old Middletown man was diagnosed with cancer of the left kidney when he was 70 and said it has taken him a long time to get over it.
Since joining the LIVESTRONG program in Middletown, Whalen said he has increased his exercise regimen and is feeling “a whole lot better.”
“It’s really a good program and has made a big difference in my life,” he said. “You can get down and depressed when you’ve had cancer. Getting out and exercising and talking to people who are going through the same thing has helped. We have a lot in common.”
Halley said the social aspect of the program works because it pairs survivors who share a similar goal while offering an educational aspect.
The Y also offers cancer support networks, healthy eating and nutrition specialists and even yoga and tai chi instructors who help with proper stretching techniques.
“We provide a variety of resources academically for them, but also provide time for them to connect and share stories,” he said. “If you have ever been through a traumatic event in your life, just to share it with somebody else who has gone through a similar thing is therapeutic.”
Halley said the program has a waiting list for each session. While it’s a good problem to have, the Middletown Y director would like to see the program expanded, which means the facility would need to grow.
“If you look at the LIVESTRONG program and see how successful it has been,” he said, “it will give us a better picture when we start thinking about building a new facility here in Middletown.”
Reach Jerry Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JerrySmithTNJ.