Courage in Motion

An Ames cancer survivor creates a fitness program to help others with the disease.

From the looks of her, cancer hasn’t got a thing on Michelle Flattery. A slim, petite, brown-haired bundle of energy, Flattery moves all the time, parenting three young kids and working as a fitness instructor.

But two years ago, cancer snuck up on this very full and busy life. Determined to beat the disease, Flattery unwittingly discovered a strength cancer couldn't sap. Now, with the support of Mary Greeley Medical Center and Ames Racquet & Fitness Center (ARFC), she's determined to share that insight—and hope—with other cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.

First treatment, then the gym

Two years ago the stomach ache, as well as hot flashes and tiredness, that troubled Flattery, then 39, for years grew strong enough that she went to the doctor. That visit led to a CAT scan and a diagnosis of stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; the tumor was the size of a softball and had spread to her spleen.

At the time, her kids were ages three, nine and 12. Flattery had a part-time job as a spinning and Pilates instructor at the ARFC, and considered herself healthy. "The hardest thing, and the first thing you think of, is the kids," she says. "I thought, 'What would they do without a mother? Would my husband replace me?'"

Flattery had surgery and began a course of chemotherapy and radiation, finishing treatments in August 2010. Post-surgery and still in the hospital, she was troubled by leg pain. So she got up and started doing lunges around the nurses' station. Before discharge, her doctor jokingly told her that he was about to get an exercise bike for her. The day after she got out of the hospital, she worked out. She began working again, too, teaching a few classes a day and returned to spinning just four weeks after surgery.

The fitness regimen was less about staying in shape and more about wresting control of her life back from the edge of a very scary reality. "It kept me going; it made me feel that there was one thing that cancer couldn't take away from me," she says. "It made me feel normal, gave me more energy for a while, and made me feel good."

Today, Michelle is cancer-free. August will mark her momentous two-year check up. Then, she will try to reach the five-year mark, at which point her doctors say she has a very good chance of living without relapse.

An exercise program is born

Even while she was sweating out chemo toxins on the spin bike, Michelle was wondering about her own sense of loss and disorientation when she received her diagnosis. She knew exercise made her feel better, and new research is showing that those results were not an anomaly. A report published in 2011 found that two and a half hours of exercise a week could lower a breast cancer patient’s risk of dying or cancer recurrence by 40 percent; for prostate cancer the rate was 30 percent. In addition, light or moderate exercise can help reduce some treatment side effects.

So Flattery approached Mary Greeley Medical Center about creating a program for cancer patients currently undergoing treatment and for patients who went through treatment in the last year. Named Courage in Motion, the 12-week program is sponsored by both the William R. Bliss Cancer Center at Mary Greeley Medical Center and ARFC. Sessions will be held at ARFC. They will begin with a 15-minute meet and greet and include a rotation of spinning, Pilates, aqua fitness, and yoga. Participants will receive a free membership to the club for 12 weeks during the program to give them access to other exercise options in addition to the classes. Caregivers are also welcome, and exercise isn't required. "They can go at their own speed, and if they don’t feel like exercising, they don’t have to," says Flattery.

Flattery's hope is that the group—in addition to encouraging all those good exercise endorphins—will be a place that patients, survivors and caregivers can come together to talk about what they lost, how they feel and what the future might hold. "When I was diagnosed, I wanted to find another person that had the exact same cancer as me, so we could give each other hope," says Flattery. "It's easy to go and hide and cry."

That never seemed to be an option for Flattery: Cancer had always been a part of her life. A nine-year-old brother died of cancer before she was born, and her 74-year-old mother is 22 years into breast cancer remission. Flattery's determination and sheer will convinced her that she would beat cancer—and she knows she can share that with people who are scared and lost, just as she once was. "There was no doubt in my mind that I would kick it. I couldn't stop my life; I might have been slower, but I just kept going," she says. "You think you are sick and you can't do this, but if you give it a try, you’ll meet people like you and maybe you won't be scared."

Move On It

Courage in Motion provides support to cancer patients who are currently undergoing treatments or those who have recently (within one year) gone through cancer treatment.

It provides participants and one caregiver of choice with a free 12-week membership to ARFC. The program includes ongoing weekly support and exercise classes, including indoor cycling, Pilates, aqua fitness and yoga.

All sessions will start with a 15-minute meet and greet. The remaining 45 minutes will be designated for the exercise class. Participants can attend as many or as few sessions as desired. The exercise sessions do not require any previous fitness experience, and can be experienced at various levels. The sessions will run on a continuous basis, unless otherwise noted.

For information, contact Mary Ellen Carano, William R. Bliss Cancer Resource Center, at 515-956-6410.

 

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