Gentle exercise class energizes local cancer patients
By CATHY DYSON
Patients were laughing and carrying on in what seemed like the most unlikely of places: the cancer doctor’s office.
The six people exercising in the treatment room at Fredericksburg Oncology got so rambunctious, receptionist Sharon Brown walked back to check on them.
“We have been getting louder and louder,” admitted a patient who introduced herself as “Bond, Ella Bond.”
“No, you were loud all along,” Brown said, smiling.
Neither the receptionist nor Dr. Frederick Tucker tried to shush the group. Both encouraged the patients, mostly women who are being treated for breast cancer, to exercise and laugh, because the movement would make them feel better.
“My motto has always been, if you don’t feel sick, you shouldn’t act sick,” Tucker said.
BETTER BALANCE, MOTION
Tucker noticed that patients who had been through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation—or any combination—complained about having no energy. As he listened to their daily activities, he realized “many of them had become couch potatoes.”
Tucker, a runner who’s done two Ironman competitions, works out at CrossFit Spotsy in the Bowman Center off State Route 2. He asked owner Lisa Quinn if she could design a gentle exercise program for patients, something that would be easy on the joints, but still get blood pumping and bodies moving.
“I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Quinn replied.
Then, the woman who provides intense workouts for Marines, SWAT teams and members of Special Forces, got nervous. She worried about someone getting hurt, especially if they were already weakened.
So, Quinn toned down the intensity but still focused on squats, lifts and bends that would improve balance and range of motion. For extra stability, she and the other instructors suggested the students hold onto chairs as they did leg lifts or lean against the wall for support when they did squats.
When the class started in May, the coaches asked participants to describe their aches and which exercises helped.
In no time at all, a common complaint emerged. Many had tingling in their hands and feet, a common side effect of chemotherapy.
Teacher Jennifer Manzo showed them flexes to keep the blood moving, and Bond, especially, wiggled her fingers and tapped her feet throughout the session.
The students gather for class in the same room where they get the intravenous doses of chemotherapy that can zap their strength and boggle their minds. Tucker pays CrossFit for the program, which he provides patients at no charge.
There’s lot of literature about the benefits of exercise while dealing with cancer—or life in general—although little has been written about staying active during chemotherapy.
“Even if there’s no literature about this, it’s still the right thing to do,” Tucker said.
GOT HER ‘OOMPH’ BACK
Manzo develops workouts for adaptive athletes, such as Wounded Warriors who are missing limbs. She was happy to branch out to those receiving cancer treatments.
In class, she encourages members as they twist torsos, reach up and down and side to side and swing a small weight in front of and behind them.
“This helps, just with walking,” Quinn said. “If they do trip, they’ll have the balance and can protect themselves.”
When Shelby Harvey first started the class, she could barely negotiate steps. The 63-year-old Spotsylvania woman was stooped over and said she looked awful.
Last fall, she endured 18 weeks of chemo—what she called “the really bad stuff”—and currently is on a yearlong chemo regimen that isn’t as harsh. Harvey’s hair has come back, though it’s short like a military cut.
But it’s her smile, not her hair, that stands out, and she laughs regularly in class.
“My heart rate’s up, although I can’t feel it,” she said, putting numb fingertips against her wrist.
After 30 minutes of exercise, Bond’s face was red and she was dabbing her forehead with a towel. She doesn’t sweat normally because of all the lymph nodes removed during surgery this spring.
She doesn’t mind carrying around the towel because she’s gotten her “oomph” back.
“Before, I was sitting on the sofa and talking myself into getting up,” Bond said, deciding she couldn’t live like that.
The 54-year-old Stafford County woman is an accounts payable administrator and has worked throughout her illness, though she had some trouble concentrating. Patients often struggled with this kind of mental fogginess, or “chemo brain,” Tucker said.
Exercising has helped her get back her semblance of normal.
“My energy level is up, and I can focus more on work,” she said.
DIFFERENT PHASES, STAGES
Rick Brenneisen, who is 52 and retired from the Air Force, is the only man in the group, but he doesn’t seem to mind. The Stafford man leads the chorus of laughter, especially when he talks about the forgetfulness of “chemo brain.”
Manzo had just congratulated him for remembering the term for a “dead lift,” but the man who battled testicular cancer didn’t linger on the compliment.
“That’s because I’m on drugs,” Brenneisen said. “In a few minutes, I won’t remember any of it.”
After the session, Manzo asked the participants how they felt, not just in terms of exercise, but also with their appetites and energy levels.
Christine Short, the youngest in the group at 42, listened intently to what Harvey, the oldest at 63, had been through.
“I do try to come to class when I can,” Short said, who’s in the early phases of what Harvey described as the bad treatment, “but the first and second chemo just knocked me out.”
Short, who lives in Stafford, noted that nothing tastes right to her and that she eats because she knows she needs nutrition, not because she enjoys it.
Harvey had been there. At one point, she couldn’t tolerate anything but cans of tropical fruit, white rice and cranberry–apple juice. She told the younger woman how she had her head shaved, when the chemo made her remaining hair sore to the touch.
Earlier in the class, Quinn described Harvey as being at the end of tunnel that Short was just entering. Harvey encouraged Short to hang in there, that there was, indeed, light at the end.
“You’ll be done with it before you know it,” Harvey said, smiling.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425