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Don't Merely Survive...Thrive

Caramie Schnell | The Vail Daily

There's a camaraderie among cancer survivors that isn't easily replicated.

“We've been through all the same things together” says Eagle resident Holli Snyder who was diagnosed with breast cancer in March of 2010. By August of that year she was working out with a trainer at Shaw Regional Cancer Center in Edwards as part of the center's Fit for Survival program. That's where she met Rita and Dana and a slew of other cancer survivors with the same simple goal: Stay healthy.

The Fit for Survival program is one component of Shaw Regional Cancer Center's recently expanded survivorship program called Spirit of Survival which also includes nutrition counseling and emotional support.

“Spirit of Survival addresses the mind body and spirit of survivors because we know that a cancer diagnosis is much more than a medical diagnosis: It affects the whole person so we want to treat the whole person” says Margaret Brammer a licensed clinical social worker at Shaw who oversees the program.

A person is considered a cancer survivor from the time of diagnosis through the balance of their life as defined by the National Cancer Institute Office of Cancer Survivorship.

“Cancer survivorship is an emerging field” Brammer says. “As of 2012 there were 12 million cancer survivors according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than ever people who are going through treatment are surviving which wasn't the case 20-some years ago.”

More than 48 percent of survivors report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and between 40 and 80 percent of survivors have persistent fears the cancer will come back according to research published in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology in 2002.

“A lot of research is pointing to post-treatment being a critical time for cancer survivors. There are so many issues — fear of reoccurrence and increased anxiety. The transition from seeing their medical team every day to one day getting a graduation certificate and then not following up for six weeks can be very hard” says Brammer who meets with individuals and runs support groups. “When patients complete their initial treatment there is a tendency to reflect back on their experience. This is often when I see the emotional impact of their cancer diagnosis set in. Our goal is to support our patients as they transition from active treatment to survivorship.”

Shaw Regional Cancer Center also has a pastor on staff Worth Whitley who listens and guides patients during what is often a challenging spiritual time.

The Fit for Survival program started about 2½ years ago. During any given month around 100 survivors and current patients participate in the program. Two exercise physiologists Sarah Giovagnoli and Hilary Welch-Petrowski customize workouts for each patient. From supervised one-on-one sessions to boot camps in the gym at Shaw to yoga tai chi and Pilates classes at nearby Jack's Place and even group hikes in the summer or snowshoe excursions in the winter months — survivors have many options when it comes to exercise.

It's been nearly nine years since Dana Williams 56 was diagnosed with stage three prostate cancer.

“I was 48 when I was diagnosed” says Williams who lives in Edwards. “Technically insurance won't cover the PSA test until you're 50 but my dad had it that's why I had the test. There weren't any symptoms but the doc said. 'Let's throw it in' when I had my physical. I got lucky. If I had waited three months it would have probably been too late. It was just at the point where it was metastasizing and getting ready to go into the lymph nodes.”

The day after Memorial Day 2004 Williams underwent a nearly eight-hour surgery at Vail Valley Medical Center. The following winter he completed three months of radiation followed by a round of chemotherapy a year later. It wasn't until Dr. Patricia Hardenbergh his oncologist used the word “cured” and kicked him back to seeing her once a year that he decided to check out the “Fit for Survival” program.

“I was extremely out of shape” Williams says. “I couldn't do 10 minutes on the treadmill. I lost about 40 pounds and now I'm doing jogging intervals on the treadmill.”

Three days a week Williams works out at the gym — twice a week at boot camp and once a week doing cardio on his own. He's one of the most familiar faces of the program in part because of how long he's been going and in part because he's one of the few guys in the program.

“It's 90 percent women” he says. “Just me and the girls.”

Snyder is one of those “girls.” The mother of two attends boot camp once or twice a week with Williams and a core group of regulars. The class incorporates a lot of strength training.

“I can go to the gym by myself but I don't work out nearly as hard as what Sarah makes me do” Snyder says. “That's just human nature.”

In total Snyder lost 27 pounds and kept most of it off. She credits her gym time along with some serious changes she made in her diet after meeting with dietician Melaine Hendershott the oncology nutritionist at Shaw with her newfound healthful lifestyle.

“I don't eat red meat anymore that's a biggie” Snyder said. “And I watch the dairy and the fat content. They're very particular there about you being a certain weight and having a certain BMI since that contributes to cancer.”

And unlike many survivors Snyder says she doesn't struggle with fears that the cancer is going to come back.

“I've made a lot of changes in how I go about everything” she says. “I'm healthier I'm more fit. I feel like I'm doing my part to continue to battle cancer.”

Each week Brammer sees cancer survivors suffering from symptoms that range from increased anxiety to sleeplessness.

“A cancer diagnosis can have a profound impact on a life” Brammer says. “People are on a path in their life and when that cancer is discovered it is common for plans to change or be put on hold. For example depending on the type of cancer or the age of the individual when they receive a diagnosis there might be concerns around fertility. Cancer may affect roles and relationships with family members friends and with the workplace.”

Brammer teaches people how to cope with all of the changes.

“We work on calming techniques” she says. “It can be very basic —learning to breath in a mindful way that can help bring a person back to the present and ground them. Breathing is something we all do but don't think about. It's one of the most powerful tools we have.”

Beginning this spring Brammer will kick off the Peer Connection Program which will connect current patients with past patients who've been on a similar journey. The initial pilot program will focus on matching breast cancer survivors since that's the largest population of cancer survivors Shaw serves Brammer said.

“It will match breast cancer survivors with individuals who have just received a diagnosis and want to connect with someone who has been there” Brammer says. ”Sometimes issues come up for a newly diagnosed patient that may be resolved just by talking with a survivor.” Sometimes talking to someone who has “been there” is the perfect medicine for the mind.