LIVESTRONG at the YMCA transforms the lives of local cancer survivors
There was nothing abnormal when Tina Barcellona got ready for bed one night during the spring of 2018.
The Concord resident had finished a long, profitable day. She even played several games of pickleball that afternoon with friends, one of her favorite pastimes.
The then–59-year-old tucked the covers over her body and took a deep breath, but something didn’t feel quite right. “I don’t even know what prompted me to feel my breast, but I did,” she said.
There was no pain, but it felt strange and unfamiliar—a small thickening that was definitely not normal. “I never presumed anything,” she said. “I just figured it was what it was.”
Several days later, Barcellona scheduled a mammogram appointment through her gynecologist’s office. Nothing problematic had appeared on her previous mammogram, so she wasn’t too concerned when she arrived. But that technician decided to make her an appointment at Virginia Baptist Hospital for a more advanced mammogram.
After a mammogram and a biopsy there, the phone rang a few days later. The doctor on the other line explained that her lump, an estrogen-fed tumor, was cancer.
“I cried that first day when they told me … and maybe a few times after that,” Barcellona said. “But that was it.”
Because Barcellona, like many others with cancer, was focused on moving forward. In the weeks and months that followed, she underwent chemotherapy to reduce the size of her tumor, then surgery to remove the growth. Barcellona, now 60 years old, has endured 36 radiation treatments since the operation. These physically taxing medical procedures can result in fatigue, hair loss, loss of appetite, and even nausea and vomiting.
Barcellona adjusted her schedule around her appointments, determined to defeat the sickness that burdens thousands in America. She fought to maintain a normal life. “I wasn’t going to let this cancer beat me,” she said. “I realized that this was the road I will have to take.”
Several months passed before Barcellona discovered LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, a no-cost, 12-week health and wellness class for cancer survivors that’s hosted through the YMCA.
Curious, Tina enrolled, but she didn’t realize the tremendous impact the program would carry.
“I got right into the program, and I haven’t regretted it at all,” Barcellona said. “It was just a blessing.”
LIVESTRONG at the YMCA launched in 2007 as a partnership between the LIVESTRONG Foundation and the YMCA to promote and educate the importance of physical activity following a cancer diagnosis. It is now a nationwide program and began in Central Virginia in 2018.
According to livestrong.org, a top concern among cancer survivors is a difficulty of returning to physical activity after treatment. The LIVESTRONG Foundation and the YMCA teamed up to satisfy that need.
“This is a program that can touch everyone one way or another,” said Randi Abell, the director of Central Virginia’s program.
“One of our goals is to introduce participants to as many facets of the YMCA and fitness as possible. Because the goal is for them to continue this healthy lifestyle.”
Although the program comes at no cost, the YMCA uses grant funding and donor supported financial assistance to continue and support it. It costs the YMCA roughly $725 per participant.
Abell’s goal is to serve 54 cancer survivors annually, which totals nearly $40,000 in collected funds each year. Since the YMCA of Central Virginia launched its initiative in 2018, the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program has helped 60 survivors, including Barcellona.
“We’ve got some people in the community who believe in this,” Abell said, who also is an instructor and coach for the program. “For us, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been affected, directly or indirectly, by cancer.”
Participants utilize multiple aspects of the YMCA during their biweekly classes, including Zumba, yoga, cycling, weights, and even pool exercise classes. The program holds a 1-6 ratio between coaches and participants.
Instructors monitor and evaluate participants’ strength, cardiovascular conditioning, balance, and flexibility. Evaluations also assess quality of life before and after participation.
Arthur Brown, who is battling stage four prostate cancer, said the improvements were noticeable in his body after enrolling in the program.
“It seems kind of crazy that I can put my pants on in the morning without holding on to anything for support,” the 76-year-old, who recently graduated from the program, said. “It was a great experience. I pushed myself to do a lot more than what I had been doing before, and I think it really payed off.”
Three months ago, Brown could barely walk down his driveway without taking breaks. Now, he can nearly climb the Monument Terrace steps in Downtown Lynchburg all the way to the top without assistance, a goal he is determined to reach.
“I haven’t been able to walk all the way to the top of Monument Terrace yet without stopping, but I’m getting close,” he said.
Since the program’s inception, LIVESTRONG at the YMCA has served over 70,000 survivors in more than 800 communities nationwide. Although breast cancer is the biggest demographic among participants, the program is open to all survivors ages 18 or older, regardless of diagnosis.
“The cancer center is designed to treat or cure your cancer,” Abell said. “Survivorship is so much more than that. People want to get out of the clinic. They don’t want to be in a hospital setting anymore. They want to move on with their lives after their treatment is over.”
But the program is more than just physical activity; instructors equip participants with correct exercise techniques.
“Most people don’t know how to do exercise properly, so that’s why they avoid it,” Abell said. “We want to provide them with the knowledge, the tools, the resources, but also the competence to feel comfortable going into a wellness center later [after they complete the program].”
During the 12-week program, survivors receive free YMCA memberships, a tremendous benefit that also extends to their immediate family. And even after graduation, program alumni receive discounted YMCA memberships for a full year.
Lynchburg’s program graduated 17 survivors on Thursday, Dec. 5 at the Express YMCA location. Each participant received an award for their perseverance and growth.
Vera Parks, a breast cancer survivor, was in this group.
The 51-year-old fighter saw a drastic change in her life following her participation, which she credits to the exercise as well as the comradery she shared with fellow cancer fighters.
“It brought forth so much healing to be able to be in the midst of people who care,” she said. “They always made everything fun.”
As a coach, Beth Zeisig loves seeing participants truly enjoy their classes. “To bring joy to someone else—and to hear it in their words—really strikes a chord with me. It’s a ministry to me. …I truly believe God put me on the earth to help people,” she said.
Moving forward, and as Barcellona continues recovering from her cancer, she wants the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program to continue to thrive.
“I just hope that more people can find out about the program… but also to support the program as well,” Barcellona added.
“They just made people stronger… even if people were really hurting on the inside.”
Parks agrees, saying LIVESTRONG at the YMCA truly improved her strength, both physically and mentally, so she can make the most of the rest of her life.
“They showed us that we could do some things that we thought we couldn’t do,” Parks added. “It made us feel powerful.”
For more information about LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, visit ymcacva.org, call the corporate office at (434) 771-7621 or visit any of the YMCA of Central Virginia Family Centers.
By Logan Smith