Metro-East News

YMCA wants to get cancer patients healthy, active again

Woman turns to LiveSTRONG program after cancer

One of her doctors recommended the program to combat weakness and loss of balance following her cancer treatments.
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One of her doctors recommended the program to combat weakness and loss of balance following her cancer treatments.

Tara Bertelsman was weak, tired and unsteady following chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. One of her doctors recommended the Livestrong program at the YMCA.

“I was post treatment, and I was complaining that I don’t feel like I have any strength. I wasn’t able to use my arms for a very longtime,” Bertelsman said. “I didn’t know where to start.”

Bertelsman, who lives in Belleville, was in the first Livestrong program on this side of the river at the downtown Belleville YMCA. Livestrong is a nationally recognized program in partnership with the Livestrong Foundation. The 12-week program helps people affected by cancer reach their health goals.

Livestrong focuses on strength, cardiovascular fitness, endurance, balance and mobility, said Stefanie McLaughlin, wellness coordinator at the East Belleville YMCA.

The Livestrong program is free to cancer survivors and includes a three-month membership to the YMCA for them and their family. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford 24 sessions with a personal trainer,” Bertelsman said.

Livestrong focuses on strength, cardiovascular fitness, endurance, balance and mobility.

Bertelsman, who described herself as a “57-year-old woman who never stepped foot inside of a gym before,” said she loved the program.

She liked how her trainer asked what her specific goals were at the onset of the program. Her goals were to work on strength, energy, balance and posture.

“There’s just a lot of things that changed during the course of my treatment,” Bertelsman said.

The Livestrong program is available in more than 450 cities throughout the country.

The Gateway Region YMCA began offering the Livestrong program in 2010, according to Joyce Hoth, the YMCA’s community health director. The YMCA of Southwestern Illinois and the YMCA of Greater St. Louis merged in the fall of 2015 to form the Gateway Region YMCA, which meant YMCA programs once offered only in St. Louis would become available at YMCAs in southern Illinois.

“We are excited to be able to grow to this region,” Hoth said.

Livestrong in the metro-east

The Livestrong programs in southern Illinois began in the spring at three YMCA branches — East Belleville, downtown Belleville and O’Fallon.

Each program had about six participants with one trainer. McLaughlin said Livestrong program instructors are nationally-certified personal trainers who have a separate Livestrong at the YMCA certification.

“It allows them to tailor the workouts toward some of the limitations that some of the cancer treatments come with,” McLaughlin said.

The program, she said, is available to anyone over the age of 17 who is undergoing cancer treatment to people who are years beyond treatment.

“Most people come to us after treatment ends,” Hoth said. “We really try to individualize the program for each person.”

She explained the motto of Livestrong is “start slow, progress slow. We know that even two pounds may be more than they are used to lifting,” she said.

We really did learn to feel comfortable in the gym and learn the different type of machinery. I looked forward to it every week.

Tara Bertelsman, breast cancer survivor and Livestrong participant

In addition to access to the gym and a personal trainer, the YMCA also brings in guest speakers during the bi-weekly Livestrong sessions.

Participants in the Livestrong program are encouraged to bring a support person along with them, Hoth said, whether it’s a spouse, other family member or friend.

The Livestrong program is in its second sessions at three metro-east YMCA branches, with fall sessions expected to begin in September or October.

More than 900 cancer survivors have participated in the Livestrong program through the YMCA branches in St. Louis.

Participants not only benefit physically from the program, Hoth said, but mentally as well, given the support they receive from trainers and fellow cancer survivors.

“After the end of those 12 weeks, they have a plan moving forward,” Hoth said. “We want them to have made physical activity a part of their lifestyle.”

Each Livestrong session ends with a graduation, and many times YMCA branches invite past participants to attend. Some YMCA branches also hold yearly dinners for Livestrong participants, and the YMCA holds a cancer survivor retreat at the YMCA Trout Lodge in Potosi, Mo.

Survivor’s story

Bertelsman found out she had breast cancer after having a double mastectomy. She elected to have the surgery when she discovered she had the BRCA1 gene, which is linked to breast cancer. “I was lucky,” she said.

Over the course of a year, Bertelsman had six surgeries, including breast reconstruction. She became interested in the Livestrong program after having difficulty completing everyday activities such as vacuuming and grocery shopping.

“The chemotherapy left me exhausted,” she said. “I would go to work; then I would come home and go to bed.”

Bertelsman praised her Livestrong trainer/supporter Beth Ann Rautio, who she said “really took the time” with Bertelsman.

“We really did learn to feel comfortable in the gym and learn the different type of machinery,” she said. “I looked forward to it every week.”

The program started off slow, but Bertelsman said Rautio didn’t cut her any slack.

We really did learn to feel comfortable in the gym and learn the different type of machinery. I looked forward to it every week.

Tara Bertelsman, breast cancer survivor and Livestrong participant

“Beth Ann knew I was not good with stairs, so she would have me going up and down stairs constantly,” Bertelsman said. “She didn’t let us slack off. She pushed us to whatever she thought we could do and then some.”

Bertelsman was pleased with the progress she made during the program. However, she continues to struggle with neuropathy from the cancer treatment and has little feeling in the bottom of her left foot, which causes balance issues.

“It really made me feel a lot more comfortable in trying to maintain my balance,” she said of the program.

She continues to exercise when she can. “I still go to the gym. I enjoy it,” said Bertelsman, who is two years post-cancer treatment. “I do what I can.”

She recommends the Livestrong program to other cancer survivors.

“They (the trainers) are really true and sincere about helping you,” Bertelsman said.

Jamie Forsythe: 618-239-2562, @BND_JForsythe

YMCA Livestrong program

Livestrong is a nationally recognized program in partnership with the Livestrong Foundation that helps people affected by cancer reach their health goals.

  • Meets twice a week for 12 weeks
  • Instructors are nationally-certified personal trainers who have a Livestrong at the YMCA certification
  • Includes three-month household membership to the YMCA
  • Free to cancer survivors

Next sessions of the Livestrong program

  • O’Fallon YMCA: Oct. 3
  • Downtown Belleville YMCA: October
  • East Belleville YMCA: October
  • To register, contact Stefanie McLaughlin at 618-236-9983
  • To learn more about the Livestrong program, visit www.livestrong.org.
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