By Kasia Kilijanek, Winona State University
According to BreastCancer.org, “one in eight women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime.” Cancer affects nearly everyone in the U.S. some way or another. Two summers ago, I met Ashley. Her mother was just diagnosed with breast cancer and we were just about to board an airplane to England for a study abroad trip. We wouldn’t be back for about three weeks. When I was 11 years old, my grandmother went through chemotherapy and radiation to fight her breast cancer. My grandfather passed away from colon cancer. A long-time family friend was diagnosed with blood cancer and was told he had only six months left.
With cancer comes treatment, which can sometimes be worse than the cancer itself. Research is beginning to show that one of the best ways to combat the side effects of cancer treatments is to move. Exercise! Although empirical research is not yet available, there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence that exercise can help reduce the feeling of fatigue, keep functional abilities, maintain a healthy body weight, and increase overall quality of life for cancer patients.
Several universities have programs where breast cancer survivors exercise with students in training for various health fields. When Ashley informed me the next in 2010 that she was going to try to get this program started Winona State University, I immediately volunteered to help. We are proud to announce that this coming May marks the first full year of Women Survivors Unite in Exercise (WSUE) at Winona State University.
Participating as a fitness trainer in our WSUE program at Winona State University has been an incredibly fulfilling experience. The movement science major at WSU is mainly for preparing students for graduate school, rather than teaching practical skills for a specific career. With the WSUE program movement science students now have the opportunity to get hands-on by creating exercise programs for cancer patients in the Winona community. With this comes a great deal of learning how to act as professionals. Also, the volunteer experience looks good on resumes and applications to graduate schools, which is a goal of mine in pursuit of a career in physical therapy.
The overall experience of being a student cancer fitness trainer is fun. Though the early mornings are sometimes difficult, I love showing up to help someone improve their health and gain or regain their physical fitness. Each survivor is assigned one or two personal student trainers. We start our morning by taking resting blood pressure and heart rate, and then warming up with some basic lymphedema stretches. The students lead their survivors through a 40 minute individualized exercise regimen, which includes aerobic, resistance and balance exercises. Oftentimes, the students will do the exercises along with the survivors. The motivation in our survivors is strong and the support from other members of the group is remarkable. For example, when one of our survivors and her student trainers began to jog around the track one morning, we all clapped and cheered her on. Though she may have completed only half a lap, the strides she has made are uplifting to us all. Another survivor, Peggy, had to have been inspiring to everyone. She walked at least four miles a day outside of WSUE and could probably do more sit-ups than the average college student.
I have come to realize that our survivors have so much to give and teach us as well. I signed up for my first-ever 5k race and casually mentioned it one morning at WSUE, because two other students were also running. Without announcement, Giselle was there at the end of our race to cheer for all of us. When it came time to listen to each survivor’s cancer story, every one of use was moved with emotion. My eyes were opened to what hardships cancer patients go through; from each cycle of radiation or chemotherapy to every new medication to every doctor visit. The stories varied, as cancer does, as each survivor described different challenges and setbacks that they had to overcome in their battle with the disease. They have the opportunity to grasp life once again. Every one of our survivors has developed a newfound sense of what is important in life. Many times, we heard that the small things that used to matter don’t anymore. What they used to fuss or complain about no longer bothers them. Family and friends and doing things that you love and make you feel good are what matter the most.
Even if I didn’t gain an ounce of experience as a cancer fitness trainer, I know I have still learned a great deal about life’s priorities. I am excited to check back in a few years to see how the program has grown. It doesn’t take much to understand what a good thing WSUE has going for both the survivors and students in the community of Winona.