Tuesday, June 26, 2012

LIVESTRONG at the YMCA: A Survivor's Story

Last summer, the YMCA of the Triangle launched LIVESTRONG at the YMCA at the Cary and Alexander Family YMCAs. Since then, nearly 60 cancer survivors have participated in the 12-week health and fitness program. Specially trained Y staff lead the twice a week sessions. Here’s the amazing part - this program is free to participants. This summer, we’re launching the program at the Kraft, Finley and Lee County YMCAs!

At the Y, we’re committed to supporting our friends, families and neighbors in their fight against this disease. After you read Debbi Braswell’s story, you’ll know why.


It took a few years and lots of twists and turns before I started volunteering at the Y.

When my family joined the Cary YMCA in 2008, we never connected with anyone. We came. We worked out. We left. My husband, Kevin, and I are both introverts, so it takes a lot to draw us out. (Our 10-year-old son, Alexander, on the other hand, has never met a stranger!)

Fast forward to 2009. That’s when Kevin was laid off.  We thought about giving up our Y membership to cut back, but we decided our health was too important. Four months later, I learned that I had stage III breast cancer.

Debbi (top row, far left) and her LIVESTRONG group.
God has seen me through the struggle of my life, including three surgeries, four months of chemotherapy and radiation. I was severely anemic, but I did my best to walk with a friend. Sometimes I had to sit on a curb to rest.
Eventually I returned to the Y, feeling lonely and lost. I didn’t know how to go about my recovery. How much exercise – and what kind - was too much and how much was too little? Finally one day I asked Cheryl Dichard, who had given me my orientation, if the Y had any help for cancer survivors.

I was shocked to learn that Cheryl was a 16-year cancer survivor! She told me that the Cary Y was preparing to launch a pilot program for LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. It’s a 12-week program designed to help cancer survivors improve not only the functioning of their bodies, but also the quality of their lives.

I was in! I scheduled an upcoming surgery so that I could start LIVESTRONG a few weeks post-op. I even postponed the next surgery so I could finish the program. I loved it! Cheryl and Beth Blount gave us just the right mixture of encouragement, instruction and challenge. We all wore yellow LIVESTRONG T-shirts and called ourselves The Killer Bees!

I went on to recruit a good friend and fellow cancer survivor who joined the group. About that time I was invited to volunteer with the group. You might think I would pounce on the chance to stay involved.

But I considered the time invested. And I wondered – what could an introvert like me contribute to LIVESTRONG? That’s when I had my epiphany. Knowing that God had allowed me to go through the dark valley of cancer, I realized it would be selfish not to share the strength, encouragement and perspective He’s helped me gain through the journey.

So I volunteered, and I will be forever grateful. I still cannot believe the incredible people who joined the third LIVESTRONG group. Some were quiet, some were funny, some had hair, some were growing their hair back. We all jelled! You wouldn’t believe how much fun we had – or how hard we laughed! Sometimes visitors looked a little baffled by us. Was this really a cancer support group?

It’s true that our group struggled through some awful times. Some people like my dear friend Jessi had their cancer recur. She started as a volunteer with me, but she needed to become a participant again. She is a STRONG, STRONG woman! Another amazing woman named Lindy got worse and died. Lindy had a beautiful personality and none of us will forget the day she gathered two people to join her in doing the “Monkees walk.” (If you didn’t grow up in the ‘60s, look it up on YouTube!)

LIVESTRONG has been a wonderful way to feel a connection – to share a common experience. Although the group spent serious time working out, Beth and Amanda Dismukes made sure there was also time for talking and reflecting. This investment of time has resulted in enduring ties. Although this group finished a couple of months ago, the participants still email each other. One person held a fancy tea for the group. Most people attended Lindy’s funeral.

My official volunteer duties weren’t very challenging. I wiped weights and helped stack chairs. The most difficult task, at first, was talking to participants while they did their cardio workouts. I thought,  me, an introvert making small talk? What on earth could I say? But apparently even an introvert can make a workout more tolerable. I guess all a volunteer needs to be is herself.

If you’re interested in participating or volunteering, contact us at LIVESTRONG@ymcatriangle.org.

1 comment:

  1. Way to go Debbi. Your insight and faith are a source of strength to many. All of us are so proud of the strong woman you are!
    We love you!