Dr. Michael Fisher sits on a rowing machine while talking with Barbara Jarrell, a YMCA LiveSTRONG instructor.

Both UM Shore Regional Health and the YMCA are focused on keeping people healthy in the community. Retired gastroenterologist Dr. Michael Fisher works with Barbara Jarrell, a YMCA LiveSTRONG instructor, during his cancer recovery.

A partnership between LiveSTRONG and the Cancer Center at UM Shore Regional Health and YMCA of the Chesapeake is helping cancer survivors get back to living their lives.

When people battle cancer, finding a sense of normalcy during and after treatment can be difficult. Regaining their strength can help, but they don't always know where or how to start.

To help, the Cancer Center at University of Maryland Shore Regional Health (UM SRH) and YMCA of the Chesapeake are working together to offer LiveSTRONG, a no-cost, 12-week fitness program led by YMCA instructors who are trained in working with cancer survivors.

"It's a program designed to help cancer survivors get their lives back together. When somebody goes through cancer treatment, they'll have fatigue, muscle loss and difficult emotions," says Barbara Jarrell, YMCA LiveSTRONG instructor. "Getting them moving again helps to really get their lives back. Their stamina improves, their endurance is better, they're getting stronger and they're starting to feel more like themselves. When they begin to get active again, they start to feel more positive about the future."

Margot Spies, oncology nurse navigator at the Cancer Center, notes that powerful, targeted cancer treatments are helping people live longer. And for certain cancers, there's evidence that being leaner and more active can reduce the likelihood of a recurrence. "We need to support our patients in their survivorship," she says.

Strength Slowly Builds

YMCA of the Chesapeake's LiveSTRONG program, launched in Talbot County in October 2017, is offered at the Easton Family YMCA at Washington, located on South Washington Street. Participants meet twice a week for 90-minute sessions that include up to 20 minutes of cardio, followed by work on strength training, balance and flexibility. Each group has six to 12 members and may include people still in cancer treatment as well as cancer survivors. LiveSTRONG instructors are trained by the YMCA in the special needs people face during and after cancer treatment.

People start the program at a range of experience levels. "Most people who enter these programs have never been in a YMCA before," Spies says. "It's exciting to help people who have never had an exercise routine find a way to work it into their lives."

Other LiveSTRONG participants have been very active but aren't sure how to rebuild their fitness after cancer treatment. "We start very slowly and progress through each session. They might start at a low level, but each time they come in, they do a little more than they could before and they start feeling better," Jarrell says.

About halfway through the program, instructors from various group exercise classes come in and lead workouts designed for LiveSTRONG participants. In these classes, the participants get familiar with the YMCA's other offerings, so they can continue exercising once the LiveSTRONG program ends.

"I want them to feel 100 percent welcome, comfortable and confident walking into the Wellness Center at the YMCA or finding a group fitness class they love. My goal is for them to be able to do any of our classes or work out on their own," Jarrell says.

Most participants continue their fitness program when the LiveSTRONG program ends. "Once they go through the 12 weeks, they don't want to stop. They want to keep moving forward," Jarrell says.

Connecting with Each Other

While LiveSTRONG is centered on exercise, a key component is the camaraderie that builds among the cancer survivors as they get to know one another. At the start of each session, everyone gets together and talks about how they are doing. They might share the challenges of continuing to work, managing doctors' appointments or dealing with possible side effects of cancer treatment.

That discussion might only last for five or 10 minutes, but it's powerful.

"That part has turned out to be one of the most important aspects of the program," Jarrell says. "Everybody who has participated in LiveSTRONG comments on the relationships, friendships and support they got from the program and from each other. I think it was surprising for many of them."

It's been an ongoing source of support for retired Easton-based gastroenterologist Michael Fisher, MD, who is battling two types of cancer. "The treatment arm of cancer can beat people down physically, emotionally and sometimes financially. It's hard. LiveSTRONG gives you something to work toward as well as a psychological support group. It's really turned out to be a very rich experience. For me, some of those relationships are ongoing today, well after I finished the program," Dr. Fisher says.

LiveSTRONG is designed to help people no matter what type of cancer they are battling or how old they are. As Jarrell explains, "We might have a breast cancer survivor next to a prostate cancer survivor. She's 32, and he's 70. It doesn't seem to make any difference — they have that common thread of being cancer survivors."

The LiveSTRONG program supports families, too. Each LiveSTRONG participant receives a family pass to the YMCA so a partner can exercise while the program participant is in the group workout. Likewise, a parent can bring children to the YMCA for kids' activities.

A Partnership that Strengthens the Community

Both UM Shore Regional Health and the YMCA are focused on keeping people healthy in the community. Health care today is not just about fixing sick people. It's also about finding ways to help everyone maintain their best health outside the hospital. For that, UM SRH relies heavily on our many community partners, and we are delighted to have the YMCA of the Chesapeake among them.

For questions about LiveSTRONG enrollment, please contact the Cancer Center's Nurse Navigator, 410-820-6800.