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Exercise class offers community for survivors of breast cancer

  • Breast cancer survivor Natalie Frost, of Windsor, Vt., watches Erin Buck, fitness director at Upper Valley Aquatic Center and director of PALS for Life in Vermont and New Hampshire, during a class on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Erin Buck, fitness director at Upper Valley Aquatic Center and director of PALS for Life in Vermont and New Hampshire, works with Deb Steele, of Lebanon, N.H. in the PALS for Life Bridge Program at the center on Thursday, Oct., 7, 2021, in White River Junction, Vt. The fitness class is for breast cancer survivors. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — Jennifer Hauck

  • Katherine Babbott, of Thetford Center, Vt., left, and Deb Steele of Lebanon, N.H., talk about how the PALS for Life Bridge class they just finished felt for them at the Upper Valley Aquatic Center on Oct. 7, 2021. Participants usually gather after class to compare notes. The program is for breast cancer survivors. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2021 8:15:11 PM
Modified: 10/11/2021 8:15:14 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — When Katy Driscoll was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2020, she got a packet detailing the programs available to support cancer patients.

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of those activities weren’t available, at least not in person.

“I felt that life was being very mean to me,” said Driscoll, a 62-year-old Thetford resident who retired from a 37-year nursing career two years ago in order to enjoy life and travel.

But this summer, at the recommendation of her physical therapist, Driscoll joined a small-group fitness class for breast cancer survivors that came with the added benefit of showing her she’s not alone.

Having completed the first 12-week session late last month, Driscoll now feels “better, stronger (and) more supported,” she said, following a recent class at the nonprofit Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction. “I don’t feel like I’m being tossed about by wind (and) waves.”

The initial class, Physical Activity and Lymphedema Study or PALS for Life, is a free, 12-week program at UVAC, led by Erin Buck, the center’s acting fitness director.

Graduates of that program, like Driscoll, qualify to participate in a second 12-week program, the PALS for Life Bridge Program. Buck also offers supported training for breast cancer survivors in a program called Living Beyond Cancer.

Lymphedema, a condition where lymph fluid in the body doesn’t drain properly, can often cause swelling in the arms of breast cancer survivors following surgery. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer for women in the U.S.; one in eight get it.

Buck began working with women with breast cancer about 10 years ago when a woman she was training was diagnosed with the disease but wanted to keep training through her treatment. For that client, exercise was “her lifeline,” Buck said.

While that client could afford to pay for Buck’s time, Buck knew there were many others facing similar diagnoses who couldn’t, so she sought to create a program to serve them.

She read books and listened to podcasts on the subject, and connected with health care providers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

At about the same time, a study came out that outlined the protocol she now uses for the PALS classes at UVAC. The study, led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, found that a slow, progressive weightlifting regimen allowed breast cancer survivors to be more active without increasing their risk of developing lymphedema.

Survivors who participated in the program saw their risk of lymphedema cut by 70%. They were better able to resume regular activities than the control group that didn’t do the exercises.

The protocol calls for twice-weekly, 90-minute, small-group classes led by certified fitness professionals who teach participants safe techniques for both upper- and lower-body weightlifting using both free weights and machines.

Weight is increased gradually for each exercise as long as patients don’t have changes in arm symptoms. At the end of each class, participants log about their workout.

To qualify to participate in the first class, people must have completed chemotherapy and they must be at least four weeks past their last radiation treatment.

They also must have a referral from their doctor and a consultation with a physical therapist.

Deb Steele, a 69-year-old Lebanon resident and two-time breast cancer survivor, said she came to the program in order to improve her range of motion.

Prior to beginning the course in July, Steele said she was unable to put her hands behind her back. In early October, Steele demonstrated that she is now able to do so.

The improvement came by making progress a “little at a time,” she said.

She noticed the difference in her range of motion recently when she reached for a pan on the top shelf of her kitchen.

By “doing things more easily outside the class you realize how valuable this is,” Steele said of the class.

Steele and Driscoll are now among the seven participants in the Life Bridge program that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:15 a.m. for workouts, and on Mondays at 9:45 a.m. with a nutritionist.

Some participants, including Natalie Frost, of Windsor, said they were initially unsure about the time commitment.

“I’m like, ugh,” she said. There’s “no time to go away.”

But once she came to the first class and met the other participants, she decided, “This is for me.”

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness about the disease and the importance of early detection. More information about UVAC’s programs for breast cancer survivors is available online at uvacswim.org/fitness/breast-cancer-programs/ or by calling 802-296-2850.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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