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 a Pilates programming at American Dance Institute in Rockville, Md., 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.
But, it’s surprising how rare such options are for breast cancer survivors, especially because the disease and exercise are so closely linked.
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 professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. 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.
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 partyinpink.zumba.com for a full list.)