Sonoma County cancer survivors persevere with exercise

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Think Pink

This story is part of The Press Democrat's Think Pink series for the month of October. To read more Think Pink stories, click here.

Beth Eurotas-Steffy’s happy place is the swimming pool.

After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2012, the disease took a toll on her, both physically and mentally.

Before cancer, she swam about once a week after finishing work as a marketing manager at Agilent Technologies. During treatment, she was limited physically.

But as she began her long healing road, exercise took on a new sense of importance for physical and mental recovery.

“I talked to my oncologist. I asked, ‘What can I do to keep it from coming back?’ ” she said.

Her doctor told her stretching her arm would help recover quicker from surgery.

Also, managing stress, eating healthy, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising were vital.

“These are all things I have control over,” Eurotas-Steffy said. “I decided I’m going to make it a priority to do all those things, especially exercise.”

Doctors and nurses recognize that as well, although that hasn’t always been the case. Decades ago, conventional wisdom advised cancer patients to conserve their energy and not tax their bodies.

While that is still good advice during the worst of treatment when the body needs to rally all its resources to fight cancer and the often-aggressive medical interventions, medical professionals are now encouraging patients to participate in moderate exercise to increase their strength, endurance and overall quality of life.

Kaiser and Sutter hospitals encourage a variety of activities for cancer patients, including 10-week “wellness” programs that include moderate aerobic exercise, weight training and elements of yoga and Pilates.

The Airport Health Club has offered such a course for 16 years, modeled after a similar program in Santa Barbara conceived by a club manager who battled breast cancer.

Lori Ennis and Sue Freyer run the club’s free Cancer Wellness Program, which is open to members and nonmembers with any kind of cancer at any stage of their treatment.

Participants report improvements in posture, balance, breathing, bone strength, endurance, digestion, tolerance to chemotherapy, pain and fatigue.

Breast cancer patients often have scar tissue, pain, range of motion issues and stiffness that exercise can help with, Ennis said.

“One of the many improvements we see, especially if they have had surgeries with lymph node removal, is with scar tissue,” Ennis said. “A lot of times, patients have very stiff shoulders, very limited range of motion in the shoulder and chest. They gain flexibility where they really need it.”

Every patient, she said, sees increases in strength, endurance and balance.

“The program helps them sleep better, helps them eat better,” Ennis said. “The more you move your body, the more deep breathing you do, the better you’ll feel.”

Many people diagnosed with cancer report some form of depression and exercise is known to help with feelings of sadness and helplessness. Being around others who truly understand your situation can be freeing as well.

“Although we don’t label it as a support group, the (wellness) group setting is such that we get to be by ourselves without any distractions,” Ennis said. “People feel comfortable about talking about their experiences. It becomes a supportive experience as well.”

Dominique Chevalier said she struggled until she found an exercise program following her treatment nine years ago for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In her case, it was a weeklong adventure sports program that included whitewater kayaking and rock climbing.

“It took me at least six months to start doing anything normal again,” she said. “For me, exercise helps my mental health. With all that you go through, it can be so traumatizing. I felt like I had to do something.

“I felt really, really weak at first. It took me at least a year to get back into intense exercise again. You were just fighting death for so long, now you need to learn how to live again.”

Making exercise a priority became paramount for Eurotas-Steffy. She began blocking off her swim time on her calendar, and it was sacrosanct.

“I just made it happen. I wasn’t taking no for an answer,” she said. Now retired, she still makes it an unbreakable commitment.

“I am a fanatic now. I do an hour three times a week, religiously,” she said. “Nothing gets in my way.

“It’s the swimming that got me through the recovery. I couldn’t wait to get into the pool after my treatment. When I’m in the pool, I feel supported and I feel strong and I feel healthy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

Think Pink

This story is part of The Press Democrat's Think Pink series for the month of October. To read more Think Pink stories, click here.

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