As I was going through my Pilates certification in July 2001, I was privileged to teach a cancer survivor who had had a double mastectomy with reconstruction using the transverse abdominal muscles. Her surgeon had told her that her movement would be severely limited after the surgery and that she would never to able to return to her pre-cancer surgery fitness level.
“Barbara” ignored his doomsday dismissal of her life and discovered that through Pilates, her pre-surgery fitness level not only returned, but that she was stronger than before. When I left the certification center to return to Nashville, Barbara was taking three sessions per week and was performing advanced Pilates moves. Her recovery and range of motion was amazing, and an inspiration to the Pilates method and all that it can do for the body.
Since that time, many cancer survivors have entered through my studio door. I have been awe struck by their determination, courage and dedication to regaining their health, and in some cases, living rather than leaving. As I have taught the method Joseph Pilates taught us to teach, I have witnessed this method bring movement, flexibility, strength and hope to those who have made a commitment to what Pilates has to offer.
In April of 2013, I obtained my Cancer Exercise Specialist Advanced Qualification Certification, a wonderful program created by Andrea Leonard to further educate fitness professionals on how to assist cancer patients and survivors regain their range of motion and strengthen their body’s pre, during and post cancer treatment.
Low impact, moderate physical exercise is critical for the cancer patient who has been given permission by their doctor to exercise. During chemotherapy, low impact exercise is recommended so as to not rob the body of the necessary protein needed to strengthen muscle tissue. During radiation, fatigue can limit the amount of activity the cancer patient can tolerate, and the type of cancer surgery can dictate how much and how soon after surgery exercise can be performed safely.
If you choose to work with personal trainer, consider asking questions to insure that you are working with a certified experienced fitness professional who has worked with cancer patients and who is knowledgeable with your type of cancer, treatment and/or post-operative requirements for regaining your strength. They should help you improve your overall physical strength and flexibility and correct muscle imbalances.
You will want to requests that your first session with them includes an assessment of your present level of fitness and ROM (range of motion). Your workout sessions should be designed to help reduce your pain and fatigue and addresses your specific needs.
It’s important for your health and well being if you are undergoing chemo or have had recent surgery that you are aware of the cleanliness of the studio or club where you are exercising since your immune system is compromised during cancer treatment. And of course you will want your fitness professional working with your doctor’s permission and knowledge of your fitness program.
Joanna M. came to my studio for the first time in April of 2012. She was undergoing chemo treatment after it was discovered that she had Stage IIIC Fallopian tube cancer and had had a total hysterectomy and surgery to remove cancer from her abdominal wall following the caesarian birth of her daughter in December of 2011. During Joanna’s postural assessment, her body was weak from surgery and chemo treatments and her abdominals were weak from the c-section and surgery. She also had lymphedema in her feet from a previous diagnosis in prior years and neuropathy.
Using the Pilates Equipment called the reformer; we began an exercise program which is gentler to the body and began to focus on using the weaker muscles to perform the movements, limiting the overuse of the strong muscles which had contributed to her imbalances. The Pilates environment is calm and supportive, facilitating stress-free, pain-free, and accurate movement. Pilate’s exercises stimulate and engage the mind which is helpful for “chemo brain” and the Pilates Method avoids exercises that cause pain or prevent coordinated, efficient movement.
In Joanna’s own words: “I first came to Julee in the spring of 2012. At the time, I was going through chemotherapy for Stage IIIC Fallopian tube cancer. I was weak, bloated from steroids and chemo infusions, and my energy was pretty low, both physically and emotionally. Julee began working with me on the Pilates equipment to build up my strength, and I began to see an improvement in my energy levels almost immediately.
I honestly do not think I could have gotten through 24 rounds of IP chemo without her. Once I finished treatment, I began working with Julee using a combination of Pilates and Bare to re-build my strength. I am now facing a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy as a result of having tested positive for the BRCA1 genetic mutation. Julee and I are already working together on a plan to build up maximum strength and flexibility for me pre-surgery, and to help me recover from breast surgery, regain flexibility and break up scar tissue as soon as possible thereafter. As a trained Cancer Exercise Specialist, I know that I’m in excellent hands and will be receiving the best, safest post-surgical care possible.”
Pilates is more about how to move, not how fast, how far, or how much, therefore Pilates meets the client’s needs where she is on any given day. It’s a safer, gentler, lower-impact way to condition the entire body. Should you choose to explore the many benefits of Pilates, it is important to determine the level of expertise and experience in the studio that you are considering. Be sure to work with an instructor that has been through an accredited certification program requiring a minimum of 500-700 hours. Also consider working with an instructor who has been teaching a minimum of three years, or more, and who has experience working with cancer patients. Ask questions, request an assessment and listen to your intuition. You are on your journey to fitness, follow your path!