On a hot and humid July morning in Des Moines, Susan Brown, a 58-year-old breast cancer survivor, paused trekking up a steep hill to slow her heavy breathing. Nearly two months later, with 31 of her fellow Above + Beyond Cancer climbers, Susan traversed Mount Salkantay Pass in Peru, trekking as high as 14,842 feet. She stood with a backpack filled with prayer flags as snow flurried around her leaner body, stronger heart and expanding grin. Today, Susan feels healthier than before her cancer diagnosis.
On June 13 of last year, Brown, Mercy Medical Center director of cardiovascular specialty services, walked out of her last breast cancer treatment. Physicians, patients and family members, backed by years of clinical research, know that strengthening one’s mind, body and spirit plays an essential role in treating cancer.
So, on June 17, four days after her final treatment, Susan and the Above + Beyond Cancer team began training for a journey to Machu Picchu in Peru. The mission at Above + Beyond Cancer is to elevate the lives of those touched by cancer through education, advocacy, training, and some transformational journeys.
Eleven cancer survivors joined by caregivers trained weekly in a structured program at the Healthy Living Center YMCA in Clive. They ran laps, climbed stairs, trekked, cycled, cried, laughed, lunged and lifted weights in a variety of ways. Members of the Peru team were assessed before and after training. Our program results are making cancer sweat since studies indicate physical activity, nutrition and lean body mass may reduce the incidence of cancer.
“That first night I felt intimidated,” Brown said. “Everyone was further along than me, not just in physical fitness, but also with their cancer treatment.” With fresh determination, she tackled every challenging training session with grit and humility.
From the beginning of the Peru training we recorded the physical progress of the survivors. After four months of guided training, 100 percent of the participants improved lean body mass. Susan shed 16 pounds and 9.5 inches, and her body fat dropped to a healthier 26 percent. All trainees lowered their recovery heart rate and increased performance on strength and endurance testing. In addition, 83 percent of the survivors decreased their resting heart rate and 50 percent lowered their blood pressure.
“Training with other survivors, caregivers and advocates has been invaluable to my recovery, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually,” Brown said.
We asked participants from the Peru team to complete an anonymous survey upon returning home. A majority reported a favorable increase in self-confidence, skills for fitness training, health knowledge, stress management and the ability to set and reach goals. Each survivor felt a deeper connection to others, and continue to use skills developed during the training in daily life.
Dr. Richard Deming, medical director of Mercy Cancer Center and founder of Above + Beyond Cancer, was not surprised by the results of this study of the survivors who went to Peru.
“A number of studies have clearly demonstrated the benefit of physical activity in reducing the side effects of cancer treatment and improving the outcome of treatment,” Deming said. “Ongoing research is also demonstrating the value of mindfulness training and attention to the spiritual dimension of our lives. The cancer survivors who have travel with us on these mind, body, spirit journeys return from their treks with a deeper sense of confidence in themselves as well as a greater understanding of the interconnectedness of our world and compassion for others.”
Given the results from Peru, we are excited to soon announce our upcoming 2015 journey. Meanwhile, Above + Beyond Cancer continues to develop a unique Mind, Body and Spirit program for cancer survivors and caregivers that promotes the goals of our transformational journeys.
The bottom line is this: Cancer is a mind, body, spirit journey and health, fitness and education are critical to prevention and survivorship. The survivors and caregivers who climbed with us in Peru, and joined us on past journeys to Nepal, Mount Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp, as well as those who ran and cycled with us thousands of miles across the country, prove that while everyone’s life is touched by cancer, patients and survivors can be empowered to pursue ambitious goals and begin life again.
About the author
Mary Van Heukelom is the Health and Fitness Director for Above + Beyond Cancer. She is the certified personal trainer and co-leader for the Transformational Journey to Machu Picchu. To follow Above and Beyond Cancer’s stories, go to aboveandbeyondcancer.org.