Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
They meet three times a week at Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church, catching up on each other’s lives in a lively fashion after working out with dumbbells, balls and bands.
Unless you know their back story, you’d never guess that these participants are cancer survivors, or that a shared illness gives them a sense of support while at the same time lessening the sting of their diagnosis because “everybody knows where you’re coming from,” said Roxie McCarty.
The Neches resident, who was diagnosed several years ago with Hodgkins lymphoma and blood cancer, said the FitSTEPS for Life program created a dozen years ago by Dr. Gary Kimmel – a retired Tyler oncologist who got his start at Nan Travis Hospital in Jacksonville – has helped participants build up their physical strength after battling their cancers and dealing with chemo and radiation treatment.
More importantly, though, said McCarty, “is the fellowship” that inherent to the program, which helps make the recovery process less stressful.
“You can discuss your symptoms and your trials,” she said. “There are so many aspects to being with friends who also have gone through this, and I look forward to coming to exercise, because if I’m stressed out, we’ll laugh, we’ll talk and everybody (discusses) what their week has been like.”
And that, said Jacksonville resident Claude Menard, a breast cancer survivor who has been part of the program for the past eight years, makes her feel “like we’re normal.
“We learn a lot from visiting with each other, and we start to realize that this is something that’s not so scary … I have a group of people I can talk with, and I feel like everything is okay because I am normal,” she said.
When her oncologist suggested she try the program, Menard said she discovered a “really good support group (in the participants, having joined only) two months after my surgery and radiation.
“We don’t necessarily (talk about illness), yet we have that in common (and) it’s an uplifting thing” to know the support and understanding is there, she added. “This gives us a place to come (exercise) and see friends … we really just enjoy each other. We’ve become good friends; we’ve become family.”
And that’s precisely what Dr. Kimmel envisioned when he started FitSTEPS in 2001: A cost-free program run by trained professionals who provide “tools” of exercise, in an friendly environment where healing takes place at patients' own pace.
The goal of the program is to help patients heal at levels other than just physically, he said.
“You come in with cancer – you’ve had surgery, you have chemo, you have radiation therapy, but when you’re done with all that, physically and psychologically, you’re a different person,” he said. “What frustrated me in practice, more than anything, I had patients cured of their cancer, but they were never healed. And it makes a difference – healing is about getting them back to where they were.”
According to the Cancer Foundation for Life® website, the cost-free program is meant to be “a routine component of cancer treatment” that focuses on lifestyle change rather than flat-out rehabilitation, which insurance companies tend to cut short because of cost.
“I’m a retired oncologist, and during my practice years, I felt like (rehab) was an important part of cancer treatment,” Dr. Kimmel said. “When I retired I decided that since there were no programs (he would just) go ahead and start the program out of my house.”
Over the years, the handful of individuals he began working with in their homes has grown to approximately 2,500 patients meeting in 13 locations in Dallas and East Texas, including at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville and at Bullard Southern Baptist Church.
Andy O'Donnell, the clinic staff member who could easily be mistaken as the grandson of his Jacksonville patients, began working with FitSTEPS in January.
He says what he finds the most interesting about the program is the camaraderie that has developed among group members who are typically age 50 and older.
“I see the camaraderie we all have, and the ability to come in and do the exercise because they’re seeing the improvements” as they do stability ball exercises as well as upper and lower body exercises, dumbbell exercises and working on squat machines to build the core and lower body, he said.
“We do simple stuff” designed to increase patients' overall health and function of life, O'Donnell said. “It’s not body-building – it’s functional training and everybody is at a different level but they’re able to do it.”
Still, the psychological effect of being part of the group is very noticeable.
“The camaraderie and the effect of exercise to make you feel better to get through that, even though you have an issue going on … (they help) improve their psychological (well-being),” he said.
And that, Dr. Kimmel pointed out, is the goal of the program: “To get you from (identifying yourself as) a cancer victim, where you wake up every day and the first thing you think of is ‘I’ve had cancer, I’m probably going to die.’
“We want you to wake up and say, ‘Thank God for this day, let’s make it the best we can.’ And that’s what you see at the centers. They’re smiling. They're happy to be here. That is what we want to restore,” he said. “Exercise becomes the vehicle, the mode of transportation … the destination is them getting back to living life again.”
The program isn't just limited to cancer patients themselves, but extended to their spouses and caregivers, because the disease affects them just as intimately, the doctor said.
“Socially, financially, emotionally, physically, it affects everybody” in a patient’s circle, he said.
For local resident Vida Joseph, the program has been a godsend.
“I've been coming since almost the beginning (and) the closeness we have for one another” helped her navigate the grieving process after losing her son to cancer in 2000, she said.
“It's been wonderful therapy for me, to see the people going through cancer and see them doing well,” she said. “They're like my brothers and sisters, and I look forward to coming out here three days a week.”
The program creates “an environment where people feel very comfortable in their own skin (and) we’re going to break down those barriers” to help patients heal physically, emotionally and spiritually at their own pace, Dr. Kimmel said.
“What medicine still doesn't understand, but what our program has taught me, is that rehabilitation” has no limits, he said. “I can't tell you how long (the healing process) will take, but we're going to work with you as long as it takes.
“If they have the will, then you provide the way. And the way, the journey, of each one is different. You don’t map the journey – you look down that pathway and don’t see an end to it, because there really isn’t one. That pathway is going to take you as far as you want to go,” he said.
The Cancer Foundation for Life® is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization funded by grants and special fundraisers which keeps the program cost-free, because patients and their families are often hit hard financially by the disease and its treatment, Dr. Kimmel said.
“My dream is that every cancer patient in the United States to have access to this,” he said.