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October 9, 2001

The Road to Recovery

Having survived cancer, these women found the confidence to truly live again

By Nancy Monson

It's one of life's most reassuring surprises: how the road to recovery can sometimes lead to self-discovery. Just ask these women, who found new ways to challenge themselves both physically and emotionally after beating back an illness all of us dread: cancer.

What made the difference? These innovative programs teach women to make allies of their bodies again. In the process, many different wounds are healed, friends are made and life begins anew.

Dancing For Life
Dance Movement Therapy Program for Breast Cancer Survivors
Program description: Two-hour dance therapy sessions for 12 weeks for women with breast cancer
Cost: Free
For more information: To find programs around the country, contact the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation at 800 IM AWARE (800-462-9273) or www.breastcancerinfo.com.

To Susan Conerly, it seemed as if her mind and body were on different teams. In her mind's eye, she could see her future unfold before her, but her body seemed to be breaking down at every turn. "I couldn't understand why it had betrayed me when I was so young and still single," she recalls.

At age 36, the software consultant manager had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and within two years, she'd  been through six surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. Susan joined a cancer support group to talk about the emotional fallout from her illness, but found the discussions didn't go deep enough to have a real effect on her outlook.

Then she began taking a dance movement therapy class at the Sutter Cancer Center in Sacramento, California. After having spent so much time being at war with her body, it was joy to be expressive, even uninhibited. Gradually, she began to embrace her body again, despite its being altered forever. And she also embraced lifehowever it was going to be.

"Learning to move in certain ways helped me to release some deeply buried emotions," she recalls, "and it made me realize that I needed to reconcile my body with my mind in order to get well."

After a bout with cancer, a woman's body image, her feelings of sensuality and sexuality, even her personal rhythm are thrown off, explains Nandi Szabo, Susan's dance movement therapist. "They need to rediscover who they are and what they can do."

Dance movement therapy helps women purge negative feelings through the use of breathing exercises, imagery and movement. "It gave me permission to do and feel what I wanted in other areas of my life," Susan says. "Once I found out all the things I could still do, I began to feel like I would survive the cancer."

Today, she is cancer free, and spent this last summer backpacking through Europe. "Instead of focusing on my imminent death, I've started to focus on living whatever time I have left," she says.

Climbing the Ropes
Women in Nature:Voyager Outward Bound School
Program description:
Five-day canoe trip held in the fall for groups of six to14 women with cancer
Cost: $575; financial assistance may be offered
For more information: Contact the Hubert H. Humphrey Cancer Center, Robbinsdale, MN, at 763-520-5211

When Julie Flynn, 35, traveled into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota with four other cancer survivors, she expected just a pleasant interlude with nature. What she got instead was a huge emotional wallop.

"The Outward Bound program was the first time I allowed myself the luxury of reflecting on how awful the experience of cancer was," says Julie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999. "I was so busy getting through the shock of the diagnosis at such a young age, and then surviving the treatment, that I didn't think about the emotional impact."

The trip helped her realize that she could face anything life threw at her. As a participant in the Women in Nature program, she canoed, carried her canoe from one lake to another, cooked and camped. "Our canoe trip offers women a safe physical challenge and the opportunity to overcome fears that are outside of the ones they face day to day," explains Julie Hignell, director of VOBS. "It's a chance to have an adventure with a group of people who really understand what a cancer patient is going through."

On the last day of the retreat, Julie climbed onto a rope course suspended high above a forest floor and, despite her fear of heights and her lack of upper body strength, found she had an iron will to finish the course, no matter how hard or how long it took. "I fell off the ropes twice and was hanging from a harness between the trees," recalls Julie. "The other women passed me by or gave up, but I continued because I wanted to reach this platform seventy feet above the ground where you could jump off and glide to the grass below."

Later Julie realized that the course  signified her biggest fear, a recurrence. By completing the exercises, she knew she could surmount whatever challenge was necessary if the cancer returned. "That thought has stayed with me, and calms me when I get panicky about my health," she says. "I now know that I can handle what the future bringsand I will live to be an old woman."

To Fish Is to Hope
Casting for Recovery

Program description:
Over 20 weekend retreats in 12 states, from Maine to Alaska, for groups of 14 women with breast cancer. Sponsored by individuals and corporations with grant support from the Susan G. Komen Foundation and other groups
ost: Free (transportation to site not included)
For more information: Call 888-553-3500 or go to  www.castingforrecovery.org

In the summer of 2000, fishing rod in hand, Meredith Strang Burgess stood on a sandbar in the waters of northern Maine's Grand Lake Stream and paused to reflect upon her life. Bald from the chemotherapy she'd received after her double mastectomy in November of 1999and yet to embark on radiation therapyMeredith, then 44, was grateful for the tranquil setting and the time away.

"I needed to destress and take a break from my treatment," recalls the divorced mother of three boys and president of her own advertising agency in Portland, Maine. She loved standing in the cold water, feeling the powerful river current. "It felt like I was getting back to the normal rhythms of life."

What brought Meredith to the river was Casting for Recovery, a program started in 1996 to teach women recovering from breast cancer how to fly-fish. The casting motions mimic exercises prescribed to reduce lymphadema (swelling in the lymph nodes) and also help restore mobility, which is often compromised by surgery.

"Casting for Recovery is not just about fishing, it's about bonding," says Susan Damone Balch, program director and an instructor. "Certainly being in nature is calming and affecting, and learning something brand-new gives women a tremendous sense of accomplishment."

One of the best parts for Meredith was the evening when participants, with the help of a psychotherapist, talked about their experiences of cancer—the body-image problems, the fear of recurrence, relationship issues, depression, anger and day-to-day concerns.

"Even if the women who come to the retreat never fly-fish again, although many do continue in the sport, they leave knowing they are not alone in their fight and there is much to be hoped for," Balch says. "That's why our motto is 'To fish is to hope.'"

Meredith never caught a fish, but she met several new friends who understand her in a way that her family and friends who haven't experienced cancer cannot. "Being outside in a beautiful natural setting is therapeutic all by itself," she says. "Combined with the camaraderie of the retreat and the physical challenge of fly-fishing, the experience is hard to forget."

She plans to go on an alumni trip this year. "I've even gone fly-fishing on my own, and bought myself a new rod," she says. "I'm hooked!"

Get Up and Go!
Team Survivor USA

Program description:
National volunteer organization with teams in nine states and 16 cities dedicated to helping women with cancer get physically fit
Cost: Minimal, but varies from region to region
For more information: Visit www.teamsurvivor.org

One of the biggest mistakes Melanie Tucker, then 24, made after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma four years ago was to stop running for exercise. "As a result, it's taken me two years to get my strength back," she says. "Women really need to work out before, during and after cancer treatment, and they need to be around other women who've had cancer."

Today, she has found her calling as director of Team Survivor Austin, one of six regional chapters of Team Survivor USA, a national program that provides free physical activity, health education and support programs throughout the year for women in all stages of cancer treatment and recovery.

 "By inspiring women with cancer to be physically active in whatever way they can, I'm helping them to live life more fully and to be passionate about their health," says Melanie, who married her oncologist. "When women tell me they don't have the stamina or strength to exercise, I tell them 'It's not about your physical ability, it's about showing up and doing as little or as much as you can.' We can get busy living or we can get busy dying. And activity just makes you feel better."

Team Survivor USA also helps women train for the annual Danskin Women's Triathalon series in which women are given the option of participating in the entire event (a half-mile swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run) or just a single leg. They can also train for the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Race for the Cure.

Three thousand women between the ages of 25 and 80 participate in Team Survivor USA's year-round exercise and health education programs, says Lisa Talbott, cofounder and director of Team Survivor USA and coauthor of Breast Fitness: An Optimal Exercise and Health Plan for Reducing Your Risk of Breast Cancer.

Lisa Schaefer, age 38, an Austin team member recovering from colon and breast cancer, found that exercise is critical to her frame of mind. "After I walk or bike, I feel empowered and energized," she says. "Exercise makes me feel like I can do whatever I need to do every day, and it gives my self-esteem a boost."

Exercising with other women also helped to shift her focus. "We weren't just sitting around the table rehashing our diagnosis, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments," she explains. "We were getting on with life and learning what our bodies could still do."

How to Stay Active
Many women find that continuing an exercise program while undergoing or recovering from cancer therapy can help them to cope. Exercise can also help reduce swelling, nausea, pain, depression and anxiety, and improve sleep. Lisa Talbott, founder and national director of Team Survivor USA, offers this advice for exercising:






April 18, 2000

Think You Can't Lose Weight?

Five surprising strategies to get it off

By Nancy Monson

Like most women, I've been searching for a magic bullet: a simple strategy that will allow me to keep weight off without taking too much time or effort.

You'll be delighted to learn, as I was, that researchers recently uncovered several secrets to weight control. These stay-thin strategies are so easy to slip into your busy lifestyle that soon you'll be slipping more easily into your jeans. Now that spring, is here, try these fresh ideas on for size.

Fill Your Stomach
That's right, eat. Just eat the right kinds of foods. The satiety index, a ranking of foods according to how full they make you feel, is key to controlling weight without feeling hungry, says Susanna Holt, Ph.D., a researcher at Sydney University in Australia.

Volunteers were asked to rate how hungry they felt after eating set portions of a variety of foods. Unprocessed carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods, for example, were much more satisfying than other foods, even though they contained the same number of calories. "They require a lot of chewing, which slows down your eating, and gives you a chance to register how full you feel," she says.

The least-filling foods? Those high in fat, such as chocolate, cheese and chips. "These foods are easy to eat, so you can eat many more calories than you need," she says. "They don't take up much space in your stomach, so you don't get a sense of fullness. And fatty foods are least satisfying. Because they contain the most calories, you get smaller portions."

Try this: To keep hunger at bay, combine protein, fiber and carbohydrates at each meal—a breakfast might be all-bran cereal with one percent milk and a banana. The higher the fat content of a carbohydrate- or protein-rich food, the less satisfying it is (boiled potatoes are more filling than French fries).

Most-filling foods





Whole-grain pasta


Whole-grain bread




Source: Satiety Index, Human Nutrition Unit, Sydney University

Sleep Well
Researchers have found that a lack of sleep often leads to overeating." The act of eating is a way of gaining energy because it raises your metabolic rate,"  says Connie Diekman, M.Ed., R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "After a night of insomnia, your body may actually prompt you to fork in the food simply to keep you alert."

Daytime fatigue may also spur you to turn to caffeine or sugar snacks, but these are quick fixes that ultimately only fuel fatigue. "The effects of sugars only last about an hour. Your energy level then crashes, and you have to eat more food to stay awake," Diekman explains.

Caffeine's effects last longer, but it can cause insomnia if you drink caffeinated beverages after noon or consume more than two cups a day.

Try this: To improve sleep, have a carbohydrate-rich snack, such as a glass of milk, low-fat popcorn, fruit, graham crackers or an English muffin and honey, one to two hours before bedtime. "Carbohydrates raise the level of the brain chemical serotonin, which will help you to sleep better," she explains.

Eat More Fiber
A recent study performed at the USDA's Human Nutrition Center in Beltsville, Maryland, shows that if you replace starches—potatoes, corn and squash—with fiber, your body will absorb fewer calories from the foods you eat.

Fiber binds some fat and protein to it, and they—along with some calories—exit the body rather than being digested. Starches are readily digested.

Try this: Eat about 24 grams of fiber a day by substituting fiber-rich foods for starches. The key is not to increase the amount you eat. "You'll absorb about ninety fewer calories a day, which could help you lose nine pounds a year," says David Baer, Ph.D.

Great fiber sources

Limit white breads, pastas and rice, which are stripped of nutrients. To get the most fiber, include at least 11 servings of the following products in your daily diet:

Subjects in a Mayo Clinic study were asked to eat 1,000 extra calories a day and not exercise. After two months, some had gained only two pounds while others gained 16.

Those who didn't gain weight had increased their nonexercise activities, such as tapping their feet or pacing while on the phone. They burned more calories doing everyday activities because their fidgeting raised their metabolic rate.

Try this: Fidgeters can be made. Your goal is to increase your daily nonexercise physical activity by 30 to 60 minutes. This way, you can burn 200 more calories a day, says James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., who did the study. "That could mean a loss of thirty pounds a year, provided your calorie intake remains the same." Every calorie burned counts. He's even found that chewing calorie-free gum helps burn 11 calories per hour.

Burn, baby, burn!


Activity                     Calories burned per pound

       per minute


Cleaning windows                 0.026

Cooking                                 0.022

Dancing  (ballroom)              0.023

Eating (sitting)                      0.010

Food shopping                    0.028

Mopping the floor                0.028

Mowing the lawn                 0.051

Playing cards                     0.011

Playing piano                     0.018

Raking leaves                    0.025

Scrubbing floors                0.049

Sewing on a machine      0.020

Typing                               0.012

Weeding the garden      0.033


Source: University of California, Berkeley, The Wellness Encyclopedia

"Box Out" Problem Foods
Most experts tell us to give in to our cravings—in moderation. But we know where that leads: to overeating, even bingeing.

Any food that consistently makes you lose control when you eat it needs to be "boxed out." That means limiting or eliminating trigger foods, says Stephen Gullo, Ph.D., president of the Institute for Health and Weight Sciences in New York City and author of Thin Tastes Better. "For some people, the trigger is snack foods. For others, it's sweets."

Try this: Try to limit quantities of the problem food. Also limit how often and where you eat it. "If you crave chocolate, don't bring it into the house," Dr. Gullo advises. "When you want chocolate, go to the store and buy one candy bar." If these strategies don't work, ban the food from your diet altogether. "It's just too much for you to handle," he says, "and you'll have better control of your eating if you eliminate it."


Copyright Nancy Monson

All rights reserved.