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West Roxbury’s LIVESTRONG at the Y thrives despite Armstrong’s fall

Posted by Anne Steele  February 7, 2013 04:08 PM

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To cancer survivors like Bernard Manning, Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace in the sports world was secondary to his commitment to helping cancer patients.

“I’m grateful to the LIVESTRONG Foundation for giving me the chance to take part in what the Y had to offer,” said Manning, now a fitness trainer at the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program in West Roxbury. “We still get to live strong.”

Despite the recent swirl of negative publicity surrounding Armstrong’s confessed use of performance-enhancing drugs and the loss of his Tour de France titles, LIVESTRONG at the Y in West Roxbury is committed to success and growth, program leaders said.

LIVESTRONG was founded by Armstrong to improve the lives of people with cancer.

In addition to its specialized health offerings, the West Roxbury program has been asked to participate in a research project conducted by the Yale School of Public Health and Dana Farber Cancer Institute to gauge the overall effects that the LIVESTRONG program has on the health of cancer survivors.

“[The project] gives credibility to the program,” said Janice O’Connor, health and wellness director at the West Roxbury YMCA, who said she is excited to start work on the project.

LIVESTRONG at the Y is a 12-week program designed for adult cancer survivors. The program focuses on improving participants’ physical health through exercise in a small group setting, while also boosting their mental wellbeing. The program is free, funded by donations to the West Roxbury YMCA’s Annual Fund, and geared to anyone who has just been diagnosed with cancer of any kind, is receiving treatment, or has been cancer-free for a few years.

LIVESTRONG was introduced at the West Roxbury Y four years ago, after the LIVESTRONG Foundation teamed up with the national YMCA a year earlier. It is one of 15 similar programs in Massachusetts.

The West Roxbury program has grown since its inception, adding certified trainers and now offering classes of about a dozen participants, held twice a week for 75 minutes. In addition to the health benefits of an exercise program, there is an emphasis on overall well-being.

"You have staff (members) who know what you’ve been through,” said Michelle Novelle, a past participant in the program. She highlighted the personalized focus of the program, noting that anyone is capable of participating because the staff is able to work with each person and develop customized exercises. A one-size-fits-all training program wouldn’t work in this setting; some people have limitations caused by surgery or different levels of energy and fitness ability, program staff members said.

“I think one of the most important things is the support,” Novelle said, stressing the importance of the relationships she formed while in the program.

That feeling was shared by Brian Donoghue, also a past participant.

“People seem to support each other,” Donoghue said. “You immediately have something in common.” He said the program boosted his morale.

“It’s almost psychological,” he said. “You come here, and it’s like you’re starting to recover. It provides you with a sense of optimism.”

O’Connor said creating a sense of community is important.

“We are not a support group, but we definitely support each other,” O’Connor said.

Allayne Sullivan, senior wellness coordinator at the Y, said people who haven’t had cancer themselves or haven’t been close to someone with cancer “really don’t understand how much the disease devastates people’s lives physically, emotionally, financially. This is just a way for people to come together and work on their own health.”

The supportive environment is why Manning continued at the West Roxbury Y as a trainer for LIVESTRONG after his class ended.

“I felt comfortable. Sometimes with cancer, you feel awkward in real life, outside situations,” Manning said. “I had fun. When the program ended, I wanted to keep working out, but I didn’t have the financial [means] for it, so Janice had the idea of me coming to volunteer.”

He became a certified LIVESTRONG instructor in December 2012.

The basic structure of each class includes cardio-fitness, strength-building and stretching, finishing with a mind/body component. “We do relaxation, we do meditation, we get to connect together as a group,” O’Connor said. There is also a focus on a positive outlook.

“We try to make our classes light and fun, so there’s lots of laughing,” O’Connor said.

That positive focus has not been disrupted by news that Armstrong, a cancer survivor, cheated during his cycling career, program organizer said.

“We have not seen an effect on our program. We are focusing on Lance Armstrong the cancer survivor,” O’Connor said. “We just want to move forward and keep helping people.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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