Susan MacPhail was on an exercise bike, fighting to get through the last five minutes of an exhausting workout. Maybe it was obvious that she was tired and struggling to finish; whatever the reason, the woman on the machine next to her turned and said, “I’m going to stay on the bike here with you and keep you company.” And with that boost, Susan finished the session with her spirits just a little bit higher.
That wasn’t just regular gym camaraderie. Susan and her companion are part of a unique program for adult cancer survivors called LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. Occurring at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA on MLK Boulevard (and at YMCAs around the Triangle), the 12-week program – free to the public – is part individualized exercise class and part support group.
Rebecca Marino, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA’s healthy living director, says the program’s goal is to help those who are on the other side of a cancer diagnosis rebuild their physical and emotional resilience. “Coming off treatment, people feel like they’ve lost endurance and strength,” says Rebecca. “We’re trying to bring back their sense of vitality, how they felt before their diagnosis.”
Meeting twice weekly in small groups of up to twelve participants, the program focuses primarily on cardio workouts and strength-building exercises. But it also introduces alternatives like meditation, tai chi, Zumba and Feldenkrais and always makes time for conversation between participants.
After a grueling 18-week treatment for breast cancer, Susan barely had the strength to walk around her neighborhood. “But I didn’t feel comfortable going right into a normal group activity – I wasn’t sure if I could keep up,” says Susan, 56, who lives not far from the YMCA and works at Lenovo. “Here, it feels very safe, and you gain the self-confidence.”
She says the results are obvious. When traveling, for example, she no longer needs help lifting her suitcase into an airplane’s overhead compartment. But it’s not just physical. “It helps your mood as well,” she explains. “It helps me feel more like myself. I have my life back, my self back.”
Photography by Briana Brough