Exercise Classes for Cancer Survivors in the Southwest Metro

From yoga to strength training, and Pilates to cardio, adults who have had a health setback can emerge stronger than they thought possible.
Kara Jeter, fitness lead at the Eden Prairie Community Center, works with Judy Kammer as part of a training and recovery program for cancer survivors.

Let’s be honest: Finding the time and motivation to squeeze exercise into your life can be challenging.  There’s work, friends, family and other commitments that often come before even thinking about heading to the gym. So imagine how you would feel about exercise if you had just had a heart attack, a major joint surgery or endured your first round of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer.  

Fortunately, the effective resources in the southwest metro for people recovering from these types of health-related events are growing. From yoga to strength training and Pilates to cardio, there are places nearby for those adults who have had a health setback to emerge stronger than they perhaps thought possible.

Kara Jeter, the fitness lead at Eden Prairie Community Center, explains that the Training and Recovery Program for Cancer Survivors class is for anyone who is recovering from cancer.  “We’ve had people who can barely make it to the mailbox and back ranging to those training for a half marathon,” Jeter says.

The goal of the class is “to increase cardio and muscle strength after 10 weeks, so that a participant could walk into any gym and feel comfortable,” Jeter says.  She’s worked with people who have just been diagnosed to those who battled cancer 30 years ago.  

Jeter, an American College of Sports Medicine-certified cancer exercise trainer, provides individualized programming for each participant, because each cancer survivor is different and has specific needs.  “We have to be very conscious of swelling and scar tissue from surgeries,” Jeter says, adding that participants are encouraged to start slowly due to cancer fatigue. The training allows her to keep participants safely exercising without compromising their health. For example, Jeter can work well with those who suffer from neuropathy, a weakness or tingling often accompanied by pain in the hands and feet of those undergoing chemotherapy. She’s also worked with those battling colon cancer or who have a colonoscopy bag.  

The group is small, ranging from three to seven people per 10-week session, although the class can accommodate as many as twelve.  She says it’s sometimes tough for people to make all of the sessions, because of the effects of their treatment. “We encourage people to come. Cancer fatigue is different from other tiredness, because it’s overwhelming.”

This fatigue can be reduced through exercise, although gathering up the fortitude to start can be tough.  As Michelle Silverman, the executive director of the non-profit organization Gilda’s Club Twin Cities says, “It’s bone-weary tiredness. It can make it hard to exercise. But exercise tailored to your personal needs will help you feel better emotionally and physically.” Gilda’s Club Twin Cities serves the 11-county metro area and offers a variety of mind, body and exercise options to those who have or have had cancer—and their families—for free. The support offered “includes a healthy lifestyle,” Silverman says. “[Exercise] doesn’t have to be rigorous to be helpful.”

This idea of movement—safe and managed movement—being beneficial is echoed by Peggie Zoerhof, a certified Pilates instructor who teaches in Chanhassen as well as at area community centers. She is certified not only as a Pilates instructor, but also by the Pink Ribbon Program, which encourages breast cancer patients and survivors to engage in moderate post-operative workouts. “When we’re in pain post-surgery, post-chemo, post-radiation, we tend to curl up.  The core gets all curled up, which leads to other kinds of pain in the hips, neck and shoulders.” In working with Zoerhof, clients see improvement that allows them a greater sense of normalcy. “I hear clients say ‘Oh my gosh, I can wash my own hair and use a hairdryer again!’”

The Pink Ribbon Program has been designed with a special focus on preventing lymphedema, which is impaired fluid flow of the lymphatic system that puts people at greater risk of infection and injury. “If a trainer is not familiar with that condition, certain ways of exercising can cause harm” mis-using long, sustained muscle contractions at the affected area.  “We are careful and attentive about the conditions,” Zoerhof says.  

Zoerhof decided to offer these specific classes to women with breast cancer eight years ago when her sister was diagnosed with the disease.  “I felt compelled to further my education [through the Pink Ribbon Program] given my sister’s circumstances.” Zoerhof’s sister, who lives in Wisconsin, is now cancer free and is a fitness instructor herself.

Zoerhof also sees a wide range of people in terms of their athletic backgrounds.  From those who have never been to a gym to well-conditioned athletes who, for the first time, are feeling really hurt.  The benefits Zoerhof sees in her Pink Ribbon Program clients are the same for her other clients: improved range of motion, increased strength and flexibility and, most important, better emotional wellbeing.

One common note made by providers of these survivor fitness classes is that people often need guidance in determining how their body works after a life-altering diagnosis or event.  Carol Thurston, the program coordinator and an athletic trainer and exercise physiologist at Ridgeview Rehab Specialties, explains her area’s insight in this phenomenon: “You can expect that we will use our clinical expertise to work with patients to help them achieve their ‘old normal,’ and if that isn’t possible, we will help them have solid expectations and a plan for a ‘new normal’ that involves an active healthy lifestyle that they can enjoy.”

Ridgeview offers specialized fitness training programs in Chanhassen, Chaska, and Waconia for people dealing with cardiology issues and joint care (like replacement and arthritis), as well as cancer. These major life events are approached with keeping the patient in mind. “When you complete cardiac rehab, your body is ready for more challenges to help continue the recovery and change risks—but your emotions and confidence might not be ready to do it alone,” says Anne Voas, director for Ridgeview Rehab Specialties. Her facility offers a program called Heart Healthy Rehab that, as Voas, explains, “Uses a medical team who knows the way … [we] can bridge your experience back to independence and success.”  

For joint care, Ridgeview offers to “bridge the gap” between rehab and getting back to a “life as usual” for patients. “After therapy to manage pain or mobility needs, your body deserves continued attention to regain your pre-surgery or injury strength and live the lifestyle you want,” Voas says. “Yet stepping directly into community programs can be too much, so Total Success was created, offering transitional exercise in fitness or pool spaces with a qualified medical professional.”  

For many of the people working alongside those who have suffered a health setback, their work engages them, making them advocates for the benefits physical exercise can have.  “It is so rewarding to see someone’s lifestyle changes—to help motivate patients to take control, make good choices, and beat whatever physical and emotional challenge they have,” Thurston from Ridgeview says. Zoerhof concurs: “My goal is provide the help to the people who need it.  It’s a very satisfying experience,”  she says, then pauses. “It reminds me of how much I have to be thankful for; doing this work provides me with an additional sense of gratitude.”   

Cancer Survivor Fitness Program Costs

Gilda’s Club: no charge to members; membership in the club is free.
Ridgeview:  Check with insurance provider to see if cost is covered, since many do not cover the program. $60 for a one-on-one appointment, $75 for 6-week class.
Eden Prairie Community Center: $25 for members, $50 for non-members; no specific health insurance option.
Peggie Zoerhof: Private sessions, $60 per hour, 3–4 person hour long group sessions, $17 per person. No health insurance option.

Local Resources
Eden Prairie Community Center

Gilda’s Club Twin Cities

The Intelligent Body

Ridgeview Medical Center