Health & Fitness

Cancer survivors find way to move on

California Family Fitness offers exercise class for cancer survivors

Exercise is an important part of cancer recovery, experts say, and California Family Fitness in Sacramento is helping cancer survivors recover through fitness.
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Exercise is an important part of cancer recovery, experts say, and California Family Fitness in Sacramento is helping cancer survivors recover through fitness.

Dina Moerschbacher sported bright pink knee socks at California Family Fitness, their “keep calm and fight on” slogan visible as she climbed on and off a stack of plastic aerobic steps. Friends gave her the socks while she was undergoing breast cancer treatment last year, she said, and her recovery exercise class seemed the perfect place to show them off.

The 63-year-old woman and four others meet twice each week at the gym’s Pocket location to work on squats, planks and other basic exercises that restore strength and coordination. Getting through chemotherapy and radiation is only part of the battle, the women said. They’re often so fatigued after months of treatment that even daily tasks such as housework and cooking seem daunting.

“I didn’t want to be a cancer patient my whole life,” Moerschbacher said. “I was weak from drugs and cutting and surgery. I wanted to feel stronger. I wanted to walk my dog.”

The Triumph Cancer Foundation’s exercise program, now offered at California Family Fitness, gives cancer survivors a road back to health and lowers their risk of recurrence. Moerschbacher and the other women recently completed their fourth week of the three-month program, which is open to all adult cancer survivors who recently completed treatment. The classes have been offered at health centers throughout the Sacramento region for about a decade, but launched at California Family Fitness for the first time this January. Gym staff said they plan to expand the program to their other locations.

The group model can help people build confidence when they’re frustrated by their illness-imposed limitations, said Pam Whitehead, a cancer survivor and founder of Triumph. The 90-minute classes lead participants through warmups, machine exercises and meditation, much of it modified to accommodate for the poor balance issues, joint pain and muscle fatigue that cancer survivors struggle with.

Six Triumph groups hold winter sessions throughout Sacramento. The session that begins in April is accepting new students. The Triumph Cancer Foundation, a Sacramento nonprofit group aimed at keeping cancer survivors active, provides funding and instructors for enrollees.

“There’s this unknown from the cancer patient after a treatment, because things are not as they were,” Whitehead said. “There’s a fear of injury, there’s a reticence of doing it on their own. The idea of doing a group program is there’s this team aspect, and you feel obligated to attend the classes because everybody roots one another on. There’s a very positive aspect to it physically and emotionally.”

Experts have increased the recommended quantity of exercise for both cancer patients and survivors in recent years, said Mary Pare, a navigator at the Sutter Cancer Center. Physical activity can help with specific post-cancer conditions such as lymphedema, a blockage in the lymphatic system, and nerve damage, usually to the hands and feet.

Exercise can also stave off other cancer side effects such as weight gain and depression, she said.

“People get deconditioned during their treatment,” Pare said. “The less you do do, the less you can do, and it’s kind of a downward spiral. But if you build your strength and endurance and flexibility, you’ll feel better and you can do more and more.”

At the California Family Fitness class, breast cancer survivors Laura Lee and Delora Marran found common ground in how much their bodies had changed during treatment. They lamented their post-cancer figures as they tracked the afternoon’s exercises on an activity chart.

“After surgery and treatment there was so much sitting, I felt like I was up to my feet in mud,” said Lee, who regularly participated in the Bay to Breakers race before her diagnosis.

“I thought I was going to get skinny and frail, but instead I lost my hair and got fat,” Marran said.

The women said they were already starting to feel stronger and healthier but wondered what they’ll do when their classes end in March.

Angela Chindgren, a cancer survivor and Triumph class graduate who now sits on the nonprofit group’s board, said the possibilities are endless. The 47-year-old mother, who was a cyclist and kayaker before she started breast cancer treatment in 2014, hiked Lake Tahoe’s Mount Tallac in September with 20 other cancer survivors through the Triumph to the Summit program.

“Cancer takes you down to the very slightest self,” she said. “In order to be able to recover, you have to know who you are. I took (the class) as a way to cleanse myself and purge myself of negative thoughts. I decided every day was going to be better than the day before, and it almost always was.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

For more information on the Triumph program, visit