Strength in recovery: Fitness rehab helps breast cancer survivors heal

For women with breast cancer, the surgery, radiation treatments and chemotherapy can take a toll, distorting body images and draining them of energy. Programs around the country are starting to crop up, all designed to help cancer survivors get back in shape and back in touch with their bodies.

At The Peninsula Pilates Project in Monterey, Calif., women like 64-year-old Rhonda Pfenning are getting help with body images ravaged by the disease and its therapies.  

A year ago, Pfenning was diagnosed with a tumor in her right breast. A lumpectomy now behind her, she’s currently going through radiation treatments.

“It’s a jolt to your system,” Pfenning told TODAY. “You’ve had the surgery and your body’s now scarred and it’s changed and you have to get used to that...I call it my warrior wound.”

When her radiation tech told her about a free eight session Pilates program, Pfenning jumped at the opportunity. The people she met there helped in ways she hadn’t anticipated. 

“I feel very self-conscious about my body and they put me at ease,” Pfenning said, tearing up. “And they make sure I don’t do more than I can do. If something really hurts, then I don’t do it. But I really try to push myself to do as much as I can. So it helps me emotionally, spiritually, and obviously, physically. For my body, I’m trying not to focus on the lumps and bumps of it, but the strength I have and the breathing techniques that I’m learning and the strength.”

Andrea Borgman Quist, a Pilates instructor and founder of The Peninsula Project, says she got the idea for restorative classes when a friend came to her for help after being told she was positive for the BRCA gene mutation and was going to have both breasts removed. The friend had asked Borgman to help with rehab after the surgery. 

“I didn’t know that much about breast cancer then or breast surgery,” Borgman said. “We found it amazing after her treatment and reconstruction that there was no protocol for exercise after having this type of surgery.”

On the other coast, in Wilmington, N.C., Lori Manship helps cancer survivors with a water-based Pilates class, called Fluid Recovery Program. 

“I’ve seen miracles happen with this program,” Manship said. “It helps with easing the pain of movement.”

Betty Stone, 79, might well be one of those miracles. "I had lost most of the use of my arm,” Stone said. “I can move it now. I can even take a brush and brush the back of my hair. I haven’t been able to do that in years.” 

At the NYU Cancer Center in New York, Christine Sama had similar results.

“I was dragged kicking and screaming to the exercise regime,” Sama recalled. “And now I do exercise all the time and it’s all because of this class. It’s been a major impact in my recovery because I’m able to move more freely. I have less pain — I don’t have any pain at all, as a matter of fact. It’s shown me how exercise and diet are such a major part of the healing process from cancer.”

The rehab doesn’t have to be just one type of exercise. 

At Moving for Life in New York City, cancer survivors dance their way into fitness and health. 

The dance program was started 14 years ago by Martha Eddy, a dancer and an exercise physiologist, and her friend Allison Rosen, a breast cancer survivor. 

“Continuing to exercise has kept me feeling vital,” Rosen said. “I have seen it empower women.”

Eddy explained it this way: “Chemotherapy will sometimes cause damage to the nerves, which causes problems with balance. So we focus a lot on improving balance.”

No matter which rehab program women choose, the exercise and the camaraderie can make a huge difference.

“We were inducted, or thrown into, a club that we never wanted to join,” said 56-year-old Katrin Smith, who has been rehabbing at The Peninsula Pilates Program. “And when you have that while you’re doing something physical and uplifting, it’s a really, really nice thing.”