Cancer Survivors Learn to LiveStrong!

Gayle Ellis has been cancer free since 1996. Even though it's been 16 years, she found strength in a program that is helping cancer survivors to band together and keep an eye on their fitness. While some participants do it as a way to counter cancer treatments, for Gayle it was the answer to get more physically fit and lose a little weight.

“Everyone being together, helping each other, encouraging each other, that was the best part,” Gayle says enthusiastically.

The new program Gayle joined is the Billings YMCA's LiveStrong program. It features free fitness classes, which help to give cancer survivors a boost in their recovery. In the nine months since its start, the LiveStrong program at the YMCA has done far more than improve participants' health, it’s given them new hope and support they could only find from other survivors.

Gayle found that support with her workout buddy Yvonne Bohlman, who had just finished radiation treatment for a second cancer occurrence.  As the pair worked out right alongside one another, they became fast friends.

“It was the best thing that’s happened to me,” Yvonne says. “It’s helped my attitude if nothing else and the camaraderie has been wonderful.”

The Billings YMCA is the first Y in Montana to offer the LiveStrong program. This 12-week program is offered to cancer survivors at any stage of recovery. Program participants include those just finishing treatment to those who have been cancer-free for years. Age and fitness level don’t matter, and all survivors are welcome. While improving health and fitness is the primary goal of the program, participants often find that friendship, support and encouragement are its greatest benefits.

Each program session is limited to between 12 and 15 participants. All the members of the group come in with different fitness levels and their own goals. From the beginning, members of Yvonne and Gayle’s class cheered each other on as they worked out and celebrated together whenever someone reached a goal.

“The support starts from the first day of class,” says Mistie Mims, the Health and Wellness Director at Billings YMCA. “Everyone bonded. You don’t see that in other classes.”

Mims was one of three program instructors who received specialized training to become certified LiveStrong instructors. The LiveStrong Foundation provided the training and resources to get the program started. Now it’s funded through the Billings YMCA operating budget and fundraising.

During the sessions, participants are introduced to a variety of exercises on the track, in the pool, on cardio machines, and the weight room. Nutritionists from Billings Clinic also come in to talk to the class about nutrition while in recovery.

The LiveStrong at the YMCA program is based on emerging research that has shown exercise to be beneficial for cancer survivors. Survivors are encouraged to start an exercise program right away after treatment.

Yvonne remembers her treatment for cancer in 1990, when she received her first diagnosis. At the time, she was encouraged to rest and avoid exertion. After this go-round, her doctor encouraged her to pursue an exercise regimen right away. At first, Yvonne was apprehensive about the program because she had just finished her radiation treatment, but she was surprised at how good she felt after each class.

“I learned I could do much more than I thought I ever could,” Yvonne says.

A health and fitness assessment is done at the beginning and the end of each session. Since the program is individualized for each participant everyone has the chance to succeed.

“We all excelled in different things,” Gayle says.

Gayle plans on doing exercises at home, especially the stretching moves she learned in class. Yvonne has discovered chair yoga, which she does at home, and hopes to continue workouts in the pool.

While the transformation has been significant for the LiveStrong participants, the instructors have been surprised at how the program has built their own strength and changed their attitude.

“We were so excited for that first class, but after the first class it hit me emotionally. I realized here we have people fighting for their lives,” Mistie says. “It builds me up every time I come in here.”

The course is offered twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays and the first half hour of every Wednesday class is set aside for motivation. Participants share their stories of recovery and encourage one another.

“It is amazing the strength these ladies and gentlemen have,” Mistie says.

The LiveStrong program is sponsored by St. Vincent Frontier Cancer Center, but participants are referred to the program by all the health care organizations in Billings. Mistie and her team also promote the program at health fairs and other community events, but past participants provide the most referrals.

Gayle and Yvonne wholeheartedly encourage other survivors to try the course, and can’t emphasize enough that the classes aren’t just for the young and physically fit. They’re for all survivors.

“I’m 75," Yvonne says, "and I never dreamed I’d be doing anything like this.”


If you're a cancer survivor, join in this free fun

To learn more about the LiveStrong program at the Billings YMCA, call Mistie Mims, the Y's Health & Wellness Director at 406-294-1616.

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