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Maria Robert's spirits sunk after her breast cancer surgery two years ago.
"I didn't talk to anybody," said Ms. Robert, of Toledo. Her arm began swelling with lymphedema and her shoulder felt sore, common side effects of the surgery.
But six months later, life began looking up when she joined a movement class designed for people who have had breast cancer.
In a recent Focus on Healing class at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, Ms. Robert blew bubbles (to remember to breathe), did gentle arm lifts and circles (called lymphatic warm-ups), and danced in a chorus line to a catchy ragtime tune. And when the beach balls being tossed around the circle of women - ranging in age up to their 80s - she dissolved into laughter as the several balls bobbled out of her arms.
Like most of the women in Karen Kiemnec's morning class, Ms. Robert wears a snug compression sleeve from shoulder to wrist, which helps contain lymphatic swelling. Ms. Kiemnec, who has taught 75 women in the last two years, says these gentle movements can also help people who have other ailments, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
There are physical benefits - greater range of motion and upper-body mobility, a thawing of frozen shoulder, circulation of the lymph system, and improved balance; and emotional value, such as improved mood through the supportive, playful environment.
A woman's risk of breast cancer increases as she ages. Between the ages of 40 and 59, a woman has a 1-in-25 chance of contracting breast cancer, and the incidence rises for ages 60 to 79 to a 1-in-15 chance.
Upper-body movement is essential for people who have had breast cancer surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, says Colleen Grogan, an oncology nurse for 24 years.
A cancer diagnosis can become all-consuming, resulting in a person feeling overwhelmed, as if their life is out of control. A movement class, even if the person isn't strong enough to stand up, can result in improved circulation, mood, and energy, she adds. Moreover, it allows a person to focus on something other than her illness.
Ms. Grogan coordinates the Healing Care program for patients and their caregivers at Flower, Toledo, and Toledo Children's hospitals. Class offerings include Stretch and Strengthen, Nia, yoga, tai chi, and a breath-movement-sound program.
Moving to music has a salubrious effect on the body, says Debra Reis, a certified holistic nurse practitioner.
"The body's meant to move. I think the music helps us to move to a greater degree. It wakes up some of the memory of those areas we don't move as much," says Ms. Reis, who teaches day-long workshops and six-week sessions in the Nia Technique. "Patients have said they've gained greater mobility and greater energy."
A gentle dance, Nia stands for neuromuscular integrative action and incorporates elements of yoga, dance, and tai chi. It's taught to people with and without illness, and uses music selected to stimulate the nervous system or to slow it down, says Ms. Reis, who has taught Nia for five years.
"We always have people do this at their own pace."
About 350 people have gone taken the three-day training required to teach Focus on Healing, says Sherry Lebed Davis.
"When you do it slow and smooth, with resistance, you're helping pump the lymphatic fluid through the body," says Ms. Davis, in a telephone interview from her home in suburban Seattle.
After her mother, Rita Lebed, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1979 and had surgery, she had frozen shoulder. "She became very sad," says Ms. Davis, who owned dance studios in Philadelphia at the time.
Knowing her mother loved to dance, Ms. Lebed Davis, brainstormed with her brothers, Marc and Joel Lebed, both obstetrician-gynecologists.
"I'd do the dance movements and they'd guide me with movements that would be good for mom," says Ms. Davis. Gradually, their mother regained use of her arm, and Ms. Davis began teaching the method at Philadelphia hospitals.
Then, in 1996, Ms. Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in 1999, with lymphedema. She and her younger brother, Marc Lebed, designed a new approach to deal with upper and lower-body lymphedema. Men who have had treatment for prostate cancer may experience lower lymphedema in the leg and groin areas, she says.
A children's version of Focus on Healing is being developed with different props and music, she says, adding that people who have Parkinson's disease, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, have benefitted from the exercise.
"We're hoping our program, if it's done with women right away, will help reduce lymphedema," she says.
The class fee is often paid for by grants from hospitals and foundations, and no one is turned away because of inability to pay, she says.
The project is a labor of love for Ms. Davis and her husband, Jeff Davis, a special projects director for Telarc Records.
"I kind of devoted my life to it because I know it really works. We've helped thousands and thousands of women to have a better life."
The next Focus on Healing classes, free to people who have had any type of cancer, begin Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the D'Youville Education Center at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, and Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the PediatriCare Associates/Mercy Health Partners' Conference Center, 3400 Meijer Dr. off Central Avenue. Sessions last for eight weeks. The program is paid for by a grant from the St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center Foundation. To register, call Pat Buscani at 419-251-4153.
A Nia workshop will be held July 8 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Monclova Community Center, 8115 Monclova Rd., in Monclova. Cost is $15. For information, call Debra Reis at 729-2983.
On July 13, a free Nia workshop will be held for cancer patients served by Promedica Health System and their caregivers, from 11 a. m. to 12:30 p.m. at Flower Hospital. Also for Promedica oncology patients, a free, six-week Nia class is scheduled to begin Sept. 21, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Flower Hospital. For information, call Colleen Grogan at 419-824-1878.
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