Bonni Gellman's stomach is flat enough to make just about any teen starlet jealous. Her arms are toned, her legs are strong, she's in amazing shape. And no wonder – even with the constant demands that come with starting a new career and raising two busy teenagers, Bonni, 51, still finds time to work out almost every day.
It's hard to believe that just last year Bonni was undergoing her second mastectomy. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Bonni was determined to build up her strength. So the former dancer, who has always been active, began an exercise routine of light cardio, stretching and strength training, which helped her feel better and focus on something other than her pain and discomfort. "When you're going through treatment, your body becomes so tired, so heavy," she says. "Moving your body has a great impact on your ability to be stronger."
Kerry Courneya, a professor and Canada research chair in physical activity and cancer at the University of Alberta, says that studies (including one conducted by him and his colleagues) show what some cancer survivors and doctors have long suspected: Exercise is a powerful tool in helping our bodies cope with cancer.
Courneya adds that activities such as walking, stretching and weight training have been proven to curb some side-effects of cancer treatment, including fatigue, constipation and nausea. In 2007, he published a study that showed a significant increase in self-esteem and fitness among patients who exercised during their treatment. This research also revealed that exercise results in a decrease in cancer-related depression and anxiety. What's more, a study released this year and published by the University of Georgia shows that regular exercise can reduce a patient's anxiety by 20 per cent.
Courneya says that one of the most exciting findings of his research is the news that weight training actually helps breast cancer patients feel strong enough to complete all their chemotherapy treatments. "This was a real breakthrough," he says. It's also information doctors can use to help patients who feel too exhausted or physically ill to finish their treatments on time and at the full dose. An American Medical Association study found that regular exercise may even improve the chance of survival for some breast cancer patients.
Page 1 of 3 – Discover the powerful link between mind and body healing on page 2. Mind and body healing
In the two years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Bonni underwent seven gruelling surgeries, but says she never stopped exercising. "Fitness allowed me to have a place to put my mind when I was in turmoil, when I was scared," she says. Bonni discovered that while there was a lot of expert advice when it came to her medical treatment, there was little guidance about how to develop an appropriate exercise plan.
Bonni decided to work with a personal trainer and in the beginning, she says, even lifting her arms was a huge accomplishment because her surgery included the removal of all the lymph nodes under her arms. "The biggest change was in my own expectations of myself. I needed to learn how to slow down." Bonni started small, but she wouldn't let cancer get her down. "Committing to exercise gave me the confidence and encouragement, both emotionally and physically, that I would be whole again."
Last year, Bonni earned her personal trainer's certificate so that she could help other cancer patients and survivors achieve their fitness goals – and give them hope that there is life after cancer. "When someone tells me they're scared, I get it way better than somebody who has never had cancer."
Over the past year Bonni has volunteered at Wellspring, a Canadawide cancer support network, for which physiotherapist Jodi Steele has designed a free patient exercise program. It features individual assessments as well as group classes centred on interval training – gradual exercise with small bursts of intense activity between rest periods.
During her mother's treatment for lymphoma in the late 1990s, Steele realized there weren't a lot of exercise services available to patients. A kinesiologist at the time, Steele went back to school and made it her mission to become a cancer exercise expert. Five years ago, she opened Canada's first nonprofit cancer rehabilitation centre in Hamilton.
"I believe so strongly that exercise for patients [with any type of cancer] affects both quality of life and survival that I think it should be the standard of practice along with other treatments like chemotherapy and surgery," says Steele.
Page 2 of 3 – Take a look at Bonni demonstrating an easy marching technique to get your blood pumping and to warm up your muscles on page 3.
Benefits of tailored programs
Last spring, Mary Jane McKeen, 67, who fought – and won – a battle with cancer of the salivary gland, completed the 10-week program that Steele created at Wellspring. "Other gyms frightened me," she says. "This program was designed specifically for people like me. When I left, I had a good understanding of how my body worked and what I need to do to maintain a good level of health and to remain pain-free."
Steele adds that several things need to be taken into consideration when creating an exercise plan for someone with cancer. Each person's routine will be determined by his or her basic fitness level as well as the types of cancer treatment the patient has received. For example, she says, a woman who's at risk for lymphedema (a side-effect of breast cancer) shouldn't be doing regular pushups on the ground, and someone who's had abdominal surgery for stomach or colorectal cancer probably shouldn't be doing a regular sit-up.
"Someone who has had cancer shouldn't just walk into a gym and assume that the people there are going to know how to treat them," adds Steele.
More and more exercise programs designed for cancer patients are cropping up across Canada. S. Nicole Culos-Reed, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary, works with Yoga Thrive, a program that focuses on helping people undergoing cancer treatment balance their bodies and minds. And health experts in Hamilton developed CanWell, a group that provides cancer patients with supervised fitness programs in their own communities. (Talk to your cancer care professional about what exercise options are available to you.)
Meanwhile, Bonni can barely keep up with the demand for her newly opened private fitness business in Toronto. "The message I want to put out is: 'Believe that you can do it,'" she says, fighting back tears. "Believe that you can get stronger. Believe that you can get better. And remember: Lying down doesn't move you forward. Getting up and walking does."
Bonni's marching technique
This exercise is great not only for people who need to rewarm their muscles but also for those just looking to improve their cardio and flexibility. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, hands clenched in fists at your sides [A].
March in place to a count of 32, moving your arms back and forth with power. Then hold your left knee up as high as possible, pointing your toes down to help with balance [B]. Repeat with your right knee. Continue, alternating sides. Repeat three more times. Then hold your right knee up as high as possible, flexing your toes down [C].
Repeat with your left knee. Continue, alternating sides. Repeat three more times.
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