Fit to Fight

The J’s Member Services Director Beth Mans.

A collaboration between The J and Norton Cancer Center

By Lisa Hornung

Photos by Jessica Budnick

When the Jewish Community Center (the J) announced it was working with Norton Cancer Center to create a new training program for cancer patients called Fit to Fight, Member Services Director Beth Mans planned to be a part of it.

But after a routine mammogram, she got a call from the radiologist telling her she has breast cancer.

That mammogram was two days after her eldest daughter got married. “My grandmother on my mother’s side died of breast cancer in the late ’50s,” Mans said. “And it’s kind of ironic in that she didn’t tell anyone that she had it because her eldest daughter was getting married.”

Mans opted for a double mastectomy because after genetic testing, she learned that she has the PALB2 mutation.  This puts her at a high risk of having that cancer return, especially since she’s only 50 years old, leaving lots of time for recurrence.

Now, as she goes through treatment, she will be taking a more active role in the Fit to Fight program, along with two other trainers who are cancer fitness specialists. Fit to Fight is a free program for active cancer patients or those who have finished their treatment.

Susan Kwasny, the J’s health and wellness director, said Norton approached the J about the collaboration. Its representatives explained that when people exercise during treatment, the treatment is often easier and the chance of survival goes up. “So it’s really, really important to exercise during treatment,” she said. “But as we can all imagine, that’s hard to do.”

In Fit to Fight, cancer patients can join a free three-month plan, which includes twice-weekly classes, Lunch and Learn programs and free access to the gym. Participants only need a referral from their doctor stating that they are healthy enough for exercise.

On Tuesdays, the class will include fitness and cardio. On Thursdays, the class will focus on mind-body, with activities like gentle yoga and tai chi. The Lunch and Learn might include a lecture from a cancer pharmacist or oncologist or a class on meditation, Kwasny said.

“I think people will not only come in for that exercise portion of it but also that camaraderie,” Mans said. “You have the ability to talk to somebody who knows that, ‘Boy I had a crummy day yesterday, and mentally I had a crummy day. Here I am physically trying to improve it.’ (It’s) getting your mind off of it or allowing you that moment to focus on yourself and not have that thought of, ‘I’ve got my next chemo round and now my hair is going to fall out, and my eyelashes are going next.’”

Mans understands. She has been undergoing her first block of chemotherapy, which includes one of the stronger chemo medications, doxorubicin hydrochloride, commonly known as “the Red Devil.” It’s an extremely toxic form of chemo that causes severe side effects. But Mans has only missed work on her treatment days and for her mastectomy. She and Kwasny attribute her ability to weather the chemo to her fitness level. “Because she was so fit and so healthy prior that, her body is able to fight easier and not have as many side effects as a person who might not be as healthy,” Kwasny said.

Two of the J’s trainers, Mat Shalenko and Matt Vamvas, are now certified cancer training specialists, which means they understand how cancer and its treatment can affect the body. They know that a person who has had a mastectomy might not be able to use their upper body as much, or what they should watch for if a client is recovering from abdominal surgery. The trainers can tailor a fitness program to the individual client, and they know not to push a person to work harder than he or she is able.

Mans is now working to become cancer-fitness certified so that she can also work with clients in the program. Having a trainer who is going through it will bring another level of understanding and compassion to the mix.

She still has a long way to go in her treatment for invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer. Mans is finished with “the Red Devil,” but now she begins 12 weeks of weekly chemotherapy, then daily radiation. She will be on hormone therapy for the rest of her life, and she doesn’t yet know how long radiation will take. During her mastectomy, doctors found the cancer had spread to one lymph node. “Since it was in a lymph node, we don’t know if a random cell has floated somewhere else in my body,” Mans said. “So that’s why they’re hitting me (hard).”

She has decided to not have reconstructive surgery “because I love to exercise, and because I want to get back to what I’m able to do a lot sooner,” she said. She has also eschewed wearing a wig because of the challenges it would present as a fitness instructor.

“I’ve got a very supportive husband and family,” Mans said. “I have to say the J has been super-supportive of me as I’ve had to leave for chemo and doctors appointments.”

“(It’s) not often though,” Kwasny said, referring to when Mans misses work. “It’s a little bit weird because she has her treatment and she shows up the next day before I come in.

“I feel like a slacker now!” Kwasny said with a laugh. “A lot of that is her personality and her go-get-it attitude.”

Mans acknowledges that she does get worn out sooner than she used to while exercising, but she’s not letting cancer slow her down much. Working with other people living with cancer will also help her form bonds with other survivors.

Kwasny and Mans want potential clients to know this shouldn’t be a scary class.

“I don’t want people to be intimidated by the program and feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I already feel like I can’t get out of bed. Now they’re expecting me to exercise?’” Kwasny said. “We’re doing restorative yoga, meditation, tai chi, walking groups – all of those things we can modify for anyone. Just be in here for five minutes, be in here for 10 minutes, anything they want to do. It’s not something where we’re going to be pushing people.”

“This is not the Biggest Loser,” Mans said. “We’re Fit to Fight, but fit in your own way.” VT

Fit to Fight

3600 Dutchmans Lane



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