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Encouraging breast cancer survivors to get moving

Zumba creator Beto Perez leads a Celebrate Life workout in Pittsburgh this summer. Zumba's Party in Pink series raises money for breast cancer causes. Eight are planned for Maryland and Virginia.
Zumba creator Beto Perez leads a Celebrate Life workout in Pittsburgh this summer. Zumba's Party in Pink series raises money for breast cancer causes. Eight are planned for Maryland and Virginia. (Andrew Russell/pittsburgh Tribune-review)
By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Last October, Tracey McKee's experience with Breast Cancer Awareness Month was personal: She learned she had Stage 3 of the disease. After undergoing a modified radical mastectomy, the 39-year-old was quickly cancer-free. But she was left with a tightness around her chest that felt like she was wearing a shrunken sports bra, arms that refused to lift above her head and general exhaustion.

Her doctor's advice? "A sheet with two exercises. That's it. Goodbye," she says.

Fortunately, McKee, the director of Pilates programming at Rockville's American Dance Institute, was already familiar with the Pink Ribbon Program, a Pilates-based regimen designed to help postoperative breast cancer survivors regain mobility and strength through stretches, twists, arm circles and other gentle movements. In fact, even before McKee's diagnosis, all of the instructors at her studio were scheduled for Pink Ribbon training.

That got pushed back a few months, but now, just in time for the one-year anniversary of McKee's diagnosis, American Dance Institute is the only studio in the country with a fully certified staff. They're rolling out a schedule of Pink Ribbon classes, and in October, all breast cancer survivors are invited to a free 60-minute consultation with an instructor, as well as a free class.

It's surprising how rare such options are for breast cancer survivors, especially because the disease and exercise are so closely linked -- in large part thanks to the huge number of walks and runs that raise funds for research. (That includes the Komen Maryland Race for the Cure near Baltimore on Oct. 3 and the Komen 3-Day for the Cure in the District Oct. 8-10.) But the emphasis is usually on the cause, or the friends and family pitching in, rather than on the profound effect physical activity can have on the lives of women with breast cancer.

Evidence has mounted in recent years that physical activity in breast cancer patients fights off recurrence, boosts flagging energy levels and improves mood. Ever since the release of a 2005 study that found women with breast cancer who moderately exercised three to five hours a week were 50 percent less likely to die of cancer than sedentary women, there has been a surge of interest in studying the connection. More important, more doctors have been encouraging women to get moving.

It's time to recognize doctors' role as physical activity activists, says oncologist Barry Lembersky, a clinical associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Twenty years ago, he never would have thought to mention exercise to a patient. Maybe not even five years ago. "But we're not just chemo or hormonal therapy givers anymore," he says. "Most women want to know how to take charge again. It's nice to be able to say, 'This is what you can do.' "

Although he encourages women to pursue any activity to get them moving, from just walking around their neighborhood to joining a dragon boat team through a local rowing club, Lembersky has one program he prefers to promote: Zumba. The Latin-inspired dance craze was a lifesaver -- perhaps literally -- for one of his patients, who invited him along to classes. Ever since, he has recommended it not only as a way to get heart rates up, but as a way to find camaraderie. "You get this group that becomes a little sorority," he says.

A few years ago, those small support groups at Zumba classes across the country started organizing Zumbathons to raise money for breast cancer causes. The numbers grew so high that the company decided to formalize the process this year by launching Party in Pink, a series of more than 600 events over the next month benefiting Susan G. Komen for the Cure. (Go to http://partyinpink.zumba.com for a full list, including the eight planned for Maryland and Virginia.)

Alberto Perlman, who founded Zumba Fitness with creator Beto Perez and Alberto Aghion, says his goal was always to make lives better, and he's thrilled to see the kind of effect his dance moves have had on breast cancer patients, who've reported feeling more feminine, happier and healthier with each shimmy. "The objective is not exercise. It's fun. The result is exercise," he says. "It makes you feel alive again."

Hundreds of people screaming and clapping and shaking their hips may be what some women are looking for, but the breast cancer recovery class at Circle Yoga in the District's Chevy Chase neighborhood offers a much quieter atmosphere. Three to eight students in various stages of treatment and recovery show up each week at the donation-based sessions, which are part of the studio's therapeutics program, led by Karen Soltes.

"Women feel betrayed," Soltes says. "This is a way to befriend your body." The practice focuses on relaxing, strengthening and stretching while being hyper-aware of appropriate modifications for the women. For instance, sun salutations performed against a wall, rather than free-standing, may be easier for someone with a limited range of motion.

Even women who are physically able to keep up in other classes can prefer the environment, where it's not odd to walk in bald and everyone in the room has gone through much of the same treatment.

At American Dance Institute, McKee seeks to cultivate that same feeling with the Pink Ribbon Program, which she hopes will attract women immediately post-surgery as well as 20-year survivors. "This is a lifetime thing," she says. Hopefully, the more women take part in such classes, the better those lifetimes will be.

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