Kim Sogaard remembers watching that Livestrong video, with its touching stories of people beating the odds, overcoming cancer and reclaiming their lives.
She was moved to tears. And when YMCA CEO John Kind asked her to be a part of the Y’s new Livestrong program for cancer survivors, the cycling instructor said yes, of course, she’d be a part of it.
“It really grabbed at my heart at the tough spot they were in,” she said.
Then came that day in May, when after a day of hard exercising, she woke up feeling ill. Nausea that began in the morning grew worse as the day went on. Eventually, she was in so much pain that she told her husband yes, let’s go to the hospital. They did tests, gave her morphine and sent her on her way.
The next day she saw her regular doctor who resolved to get to the bottom of the issue. Some blood work and a PET scan later, her doctor delivered the irony: aggressive non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Cancer. The woman who was about to become an instructor for an exercise program for cancer survivors was now on the other side.
So instead of instructing, she enrolled.
“It was fabulous,” Sogaard said. “It was a way of helping me get stronger slowly rather than looking for results overnight.”
The 12-week program welcomes cancer survivors of all ages and backgrounds. You need not be a regular exerciser to join. You just need to be willing to work, and open to a program that works by creating a family of people fighting the same fight.
“We have individuals who have completed their last reconstruction, people on preventative chemo, some without cancer for two or more years,” the YMCA’s Joy Leafblad said. “So we have people all throughout the journey.”
The Mankato Y had to apply to be allowed to offer the program. It’s run through the Y of USA in a joint venture with Livestrong, the cancer-fighting nonprofit started by cyclist Lance Armstrong.
When the program started at the Y several months ago, it was the only Y in the state offering the course. Now a second Y is offering it as well.
“Cancer is something that devastates not only them but their family,” Leafblad said. “Everything stops and you’re dealing with something that you don’t know what the outcome will be.”
Participants meet people going through the same thing, she said. Each class includes time for sharing high and low points from the previous week. Exercise is tailored to their personal situation (a stranger to the gym won’t be doing the same reps as a seasoned athlete).
The class is open to Y members and non-members alike. Non members are given a membership to the Y for the duration of the program. Classes are 90 minutes and include both strength and cardio work. It meets twice weekly and mixes in yoga, swimming, cycling etc.
Instructor Chris Schull says she also has a personal connection that makes her involvment with Livestrong more meaningful.
Two years ago, she lost her mother to ovarian cancer.
“I watched her go through 24 rounds of chemo,” she said. “It was very hard to watch her go through that.”
Serving as a Livestrong instructor, she said, allows her to give back to others.
“Exercise at any level is good for anyone, but especially someone who has gone through cancer treatment,” Schull said. “Exercise gives people an inner strength.”
After watching people go through the first round of the program, Schull said she’s convinced it works.
“I saw exercise improvement, self-esteem improvement, friendships created,” she said. “We expose them to everything the Y has to offer. I had a person who had never come to the Y, and now she has a plan, written down, six days a week of things she’s doing at the Y. And she’s also bringing her family.”
Schull says Livestrong trainers are prepared for the variety of physical needs cancer survivors may present. Some may have ostomy pouches to deal with or may have extreme sensitivity in their digits that can be caused by chemo.
“As trainers we push them to be all they can be. We believe in their abilities,” she said. “I have so many participants say ‘Oh, I can’t, I can’t,’ and when they leave, they’re saying ‘I can and I will.’”
Sometimes, though, the help is more emotional than physical, a subject Sogaard knows all too well.
She remembers heading to her Livestrong class one day when she pulled up to a stop light, the one between Cub Foods and Kwik Trip. She was mid-chemo at this point, and she’d lost all her hair.
As any driver would, she glanced over at the driver in the car to her right. The young man in that car looked back, saw her bald head and began to laugh. He then turned to the other young men in his car and drew their attention to Sogaard, and they too laughed at her.
“I just faced forward and tried to ignore them,” she said.
Later, when she was with the other Livestrong class members, she broke down and shared what had happened on the way to class. She was thankful, she said, to have been with a group who understood such an indignity, and glad to be able to get it off her chest.
How to get involved If you'd like to be considered for admission to the Mankato YMCA's Livestrong program, contact Joy Leafblad at 345-9813 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find out more by visiting mankatoymca.org.