Cancer patients find strength through exercise, camaraderie

June Steffy understands the importance of exercise. Her daily routines have helped her stay in shape, battle two forms of cancer since 2014 and prepare her for an upcoming marathon in November — despite still being on targeted chemotherapy drugs twice a day.

Steffy, who was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer four years ago and with chronic myeloid leukemia last year, is one of the dozens of cancer survivors and patients who attend free weekly exercise classes designed for people experiencing the disease. The classes, at EōS Fitness in Encinitas, are provided in partnership with the nonprofit North County Cancer Fitness (NCCF).

Steffy plans to run the New York Marathon in November "just in celebration that [she] can" and to help benefit NCCF, which provides five 50-minute classes per week for cancer patients at EōS.

"I'm just thrilled to be doing something for NCCF because it's a great organization," the 54-year-old Carlsbad woman said.

NCCF developed the classes seven years ago to cater to an underserved group, said Erzsi Myers, elite trainer at EōS and board member for NCCF.

Similar specialty exercise programs existed for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's but fitness classes designed for cancer patients were rare in the area, Myers said.

Since partnering with EōS four years ago, the number of classes has increased from one a week to five a week, with offerings like fitness, boot camps, kickboxing, Zumba, pilates and weightlifting. The group that started with six participants now regularly sees 25 people of all stages of cancer and types of cancer.

Myers believes exercise is one of the best ways for cancer patients to combat fatigue, maintain muscle mass and increase appetite. The program also helps participants socialize with like-minded people, she said.

"Whether they're in treatment pre-surgery, post-surgery or in remission, they can come to our class," said Myers, one of five volunteer instructors for the program. "It's a constant, so they can grow in their fitness journey just like anyone else can. We're just making this very accessible for people who maybe don't have that access to the level of fitness they really need."

Additionally, after treatment, exercise is shown to be the number one method to reduce the risk of reoccurrence, she said.

Myers has witnessed people start four years ago with fears of doing squats, and now those same participants can do pull-ups with no problems.

"We try to empower everybody to want to do more to try," she said. "To present exercise in a very safe environment and see people flourish a lot faster through that and to have that sense of community is really cool."

Interested participants must first meet with a mentor — who's also a cancer survivor — to perform an intake evaluation. Participants must also provide a doctor's recommendation.

Tori Mooney, a retired physical therapist and one of the class' volunteer mentors, said exercise has helped her on her own cancer journey, after being diagnosed with a non-curable blood cancer six years ago.

"I'm a firm believer that exercise is so important," she said. "I never had any side effects because as soon as my chemo was done, I was at the gym working out and climbing that machine. In my mind, as a therapist, I figured you have to increase your circulation, and that blood flow is going to go where it needs to go and you sweat out the toxins."

The 71-year-old Olivenhain resident added she feels a special connection with the participants in the classes.

"It's this communal group that everybody can identify with," she said. "I pretty much know everyone's story because I do the intakes. I stand there and I go down that row and I look at stage-four lung cancer, stage-four pancreatic cancer... I look at these people that have such horrendous diagnoses with bad prognosis, but yet they're out there moving forward and they're not giving into it. That totally inspires me."

Karen Gong, 69, of Carlsbad, sees exercise as part of her daily medicine routine for her uterine cancer, which is currently suppressed but has no cure.

"I feel like, if I want to get well, I better come here," she said. "Going to the gym and continuing this exercise and my healthy diet will help me. Exercise is definitely the best thing. No matter what age, if you keep up your exercise, I think you will do good."

For more information and to receive a consultation or volunteer to help, visit www.northcountycancerfitness.org.

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