Exorcising cancer with exercise

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Michele Lawrence’s yoga class is open to cancer patients, caregivers and anyone who has had cancer.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

Even as a healthy outdoor athlete, Kristen Dugan got a yearly mammogram – just to be sure.

She’s glad she did.

“In 2011, I was clean, so this year I wondered if I really needed one,” Dugan, 41, said in a recent interview. “But I felt a lump in a self-examination. It turned out to be full-blown cancer.”

Dugan had a double mastectomy in May and, while still undergoing chemotherapy (she’s just begun a 30-session radiation regimen), joined “Living Well Yoga for Cancer,” a recovery program using gentle stretching and relaxation.

“It’s an amazing support group,” Dugan said of Living Well. “It got me through chemo when I thought I couldn’t make it.”

American Cancer Society guidelines released earlier this year recommend cancer patients maintain a healthy weight, get exercise and eat a healthy diet. Recent research has shown that taking these steps can lower chances of cancer recurring.

The camaraderie that grows from a shared experience is as helpful as the benefits from exercise, Dugan said.

Living Well Yoga is one of two programs in Durango that use exercise as part of cancer therapy. The other, Cancer Fit, given at the Durango Community Recreation Center, concentrates on building strength, cardiovascular training, flexibility, balance and meditation.

Living Well Yoga is taught by Michele Lawrence, who guides recovering cancer patients through a session of exercises on Wednesdays to loosen and strengthen muscles and tissue that get beat up during cancer surgery.

Mayo Clinic research has found that cancer patients benefit from yoga, Lawrence said.

The class also is open to caregivers, as well as anyone who has or had cancer.

“Yoga therapy is not general yoga, but aims at individual needs,” Lawrence said. “Restorative yoga poses are designed to help with the side effects of cancer treatment.

“We encourage attention to breathing and relaxation. We want to rebuild range of motion and help the immune and nervous systems,” she said.

Lawrence has practiced yoga for 12 years and taught for seven years. On a personal level, she finds that yoga reduces anxiety, stress and insomnia.

Lawrence’s program and Cancer Fit dovetail with guidelines that the American Cancer Society issued in April.

“The guidelines are based on evidence that by improving their physical fitness, cancer survivors can decrease their risk for other cancers or their risk for a recurrence,” said Toni Abbey, an oncology nurse who has suspended her professional career to help cancer patients solve physical, emotional and practical problems resulting from their illness through her Blueprints of Hope.

“The medical community takes good care of cancer patients,” Abbey said. “But then they’re sent on their way without long-term support.

“I help them find the community resources they need to get back to living as fully as possible,” Abbey said. “It’s important because they worry about a recurrence for the rest of their life.”

Cancer Fit is a three- or six-month individualized exercise program. It comprises pre- and postassessment, a personalized exercise routine, 75 minutes a week of supervised group classes and a full-access pass to the recreation center.

The class meets Tuesday in an exercise room and Thursday in the pool.

Exercise routines include flexibility, strength and cardiovascular training. Any cancer survivor – present or past – may participate.

Cancer Fit instructors are Jo C. Soignier, an exercise science professor at Fort Lewis College for 23 years, and Sue Kohlhardt, a registered nurse, nutrition coach and personal trainer.

“The benefits of exercise are the same for cancer patients as for anyone else,” Soignier said. “They improve physical conditioning, reduce fatigue and improve their mood and self-confidence.

“The fellowship that develops in class is important, too,” she said. “The experience of a common journey motivates everyone.”


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