Mission Moment Livestrong Instructor | West Suburban YMCA

Mission Moment: How LIVESTRONG at the YMCA Changes Lives

Jane Carroll

Jul 19, 2019

Mission Moment

Mission Moments are stories shared by West Suburban YMCA staff and members that demonstrate service to our community. Over the years, the work of the Y has grown and evolved, but the shared mission of YMCA’s across the world has remained constant: to deliver services and programs that build mind, body and spirit; to reflect our core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility; and to make sure that everyone has access to our programs and services.

In past Mission Moments, I have shared the experiences of the Livestrong at the YMCA program through the eyes of the cancer-surviving participant. For this Mission Moment, I want to share my personal experience as the coordinator and instructor of the program. Livestrong at the YMCA is a 12-week, health and wellbeing program for any cancer survivor which our YMCA offers at no charge. The program meets twice a week, and participants and their families are provided free memberships for all 12-weeks and are encouraged to visit the Y as often as possible. Our Y provides this program without a fee thanks to the contributions made to the Y’s annual fund. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I was very hesitant when I was asked to run this program at our Y. One of the reasons I chose to work at a Y rather than in a hospital or a rehab center is because I didn’t feel as though I was capable of working with sick people. I thought it would be depressing and unsatisfying; fearing that I wouldn’t be able to handle my emotions when people grew more ill or died. My early-twenty-something self chose to work at a Y with healthy people to save them from disease and keep them healthy by teaching them proper ways to eat and exercise. 

In life, they say you grow as an individual when you are pushed out of your comfort zone. Coordinating and instructing the Livestrong at the YMCA program has pushed me past my level of comfort and definitely has helped me to grow as an individual. It is now one of my favorite programs during my time here at the Y. Listening to each cancer survivor share their stories, their fears, their goals and dreams and attempting to help them to return to a new sense of normalcy where they are able to gain strength and self-confidence again is immeasurable.

My uneducated and naïve self thought people with cancer had done something in their past to acquire this awful disease… maybe they were overweight and didn’t “take care of themselves”, maybe they didn’t exercise regularly, maybe they smoked, maybe they drank too much, maybe they laid out in the sun without sunscreen, maybe they worked at a job that exposed them to chemicals…

Was I wrong! What I quickly discovered was that is so far from the truth. Cancer is indiscriminate and every survivor who I have had the pleasure of meeting has taught me this lesson. I now know that cancer can affect ANYONE at ANYTIME. High school and collegiate athletes, triathletes, people who eat organically and monitor their calories and fat content, people who exercise every day, people who have never smoked or drank a day in their life, people who wear SPF 100…People who have taken every precaution and who have done everything “right” - NEVER in a million years thought that they’d be walking out of the doctor’s office with a cancer diagnosis when they walked in for a “little pain in their back.”

LIFE CHANGING. Cancer is LIFE CHANGING. The diagnosis, the treatment, the side effects of the treatment, the inability to do things that were once so easily done. The fatigue, the loss of friends, the constant fear that with each pain or twinge or doctor’s appointment of finding out that the cancer has returned, the inability for other people to understand what the they are going through… All life changing and all revealed during this program.

As the participants come and sit with me during their initial intake and discuss all of this, as they shyly enter Livestrong at the YMCA class on the first day; not quite sure what to expect, as they learn to adjust to their new life; they each have this inner light shining through…this new perspective about what is truly important. And while their baselines and hairlines may not be what they used to be – it’s ok because they are here not just surviving but also thriving. 

As an instructor it is almost indescribable to put into words what I have the privilege of witnessing every twelve-week session. Eight to twelve strangers, grateful to be here and alive, but at the same time physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted and frustrated. Some are depressed, and some have pain or other issues due to the side effects of chemo and radiation. Most are scared that they won’t be able to ever feel like themselves again. In this Livestrong at the YMCA setting, through silly ice breaker games and fun fitness activities, we slowly break down these barriers, and this self-doubt. We are silly and we are vulnerable. Our goal is to get stronger, more fit and have fun.

Oftentimes, at the baseline assessments, people can’t balance on one foot for longer than three seconds, some cannot walk continuously for 6 minutes, can’t reach their arm over their head…and that’s ok we tell them. We tell them that over the course of the twelve weeks, through consistency, accountability, reassurance and guidance that they will get stronger and more confident and they will have FUN doing so. Then they all look at me like I have 10 heads. However, deep down they know I’m telling the truth.

And one day, it seemingly magically happens…Johnny who couldn’t stand on one foot for more than 3 seconds is now standing on one foot for 30 seconds, Mary can successfully get up and down off the ground and reach over her head, Grace is able to walk for 20 consecutive minutes. And they’re no longer strangers (In fact, they all become so friendly and talkative that we interrupt them in order to give instructions). They become more confident; they’re believing in themselves and in the program. As the twelve weeks progress, the strength, endurance, balance and flexibility continue to grow and so do the friendships. Each group consisting of the different ages, cancer types and prognosis and personalities develops its own special bond. 

The other instructors, volunteers and I often comment on how much their will and outlook on life has changed the way we think about everything. At the end of the program, during our graduation ceremony, the survivors give thanks expressing how wonderful the program was, how they are feeling so much stronger and confident, able to do things that they never thought they’d be able to do again. Each time, I tell them that I should be thanking them; for allowing me to witness the strength of the human spirit, the power of positive thinking and the drive to never ever give up – literally to live stronger!