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It’s just about being there and having someone there to put their arms around you, support you in what you are going through.
Maggie Last

Working Toward Recovery

Maggie Last, health and wellness supervisor at the North Area Family YMCA in Liverpool, is on a mission to help cancer survivors truly recover, and Livestrong

Maggie Last welcomes cancer survivors into the Livestrong program with open arms and a smile. Every week she is at the group’s meetings listening intently with a shoulder to cry on. Building relationships on an emotional level with people facing life-changing adversity is really what her job is all about.

Last speaks with quiet reserve and glossy eyes about one survivor in particular who stands tall in her heart.

There was a woman, a survivor of cervical cancer, who was about half way through the program when she was re-diagnosed.

Her heart was 110 percent in it, but some days were a lot tougher than others.

“I remember one day she came in just to say hello. I came into the locker room and she was hobbling around to the point to where I just wanted to grab onto her because I thought she was going to fall. She started to cry when she saw me, I tried to hold it together,” said Last. “She said coming gave her so much inspiration and support.”

“Knowing how much pain she was in, and how hard it was for her, there were nights I went home and I cried because I thought she was going to pass,” said Last. “I mean there was a point where she was very close. It was very upsetting.”

She was able to pull through and has since gone back to work full-time.

Last, health and wellness supervisor at the North Area Family YMCA, welcomed twenty survivors who are now working their way to recovery in the club’s Livestrong program. The group finished their final week of training May 3, 2012.

The YMCA Livestrong program, for cancer survivors, is a 12-week program that focuses on the mind, body and spirit, said Jessica DesRosiers, who works with Last as the health and wellness director for the club.

“It is the slow step of coming back in, sitting with a group, having a cup of coffee,” said Last.

“It’s just about being there and having someone there to put their arms around you, support you in what you are going through,” said Last. “You have people that come in, who have just gone through the most life-changing thing ever, and we give them the chance to become stronger,”

“Lance Armstrong’s and Livestrong’s definition of a survivor is ‘you are a survivor from the day you are diagnosed,’” said Last.

This group of survivors consists of women, age 65 and older most of whom are retired. Age is not necessarily a weakness in the fight cancer.

According to the article Seniors are found to be leaders in cancer survival rates, by the Bay Alarm Medical Editorial Staff at Bayalarmmedical.com, of “12 million (cancer) survivors, 60 percent of them were 65-years-old or older.”

“NCI predicts that this number will increase to 63 percent by 2020.”

Survivors at any stage of treatment are welcome to join the program at anytime.

Livestrong is free and includes a full membership to the YMCA over the course of the program, said DesRosiers. The initial goal of the program is fitness, but building relationships is the big benefit to the survivors and a useful tool on their road to recovery.

Last intends to improve the quality of life for cancer survivors through fitness, endurance training, and strength training.

“What I have found is that it is the connection they make as a group that helps build self-confidence and self-esteem,” said Last.

The first thing members talk about is how much they value the relationships they have built in a short time in the program. Marsha Vansteenburgh, a retired executive assistant, smiles when she talks about her experiences with Last and the YMCA.

“We have all gone through similar experiences so its kinda nice to have someone to talk to about it with,” said Vansteenburgh. “It’s made me more comfortable talking about cancer, it’s nice to have a place where you can share and not feel bad about it.”

One of the relationships Vansteenburgh has developed through the Livestrong program is with, Gladys Stevenson. It is rare to see the two of them apart while at the YMCA.

“The thing I appreciate the most is the friendships,” said Stevenson. “With these people you can talk about the symptoms, the possibilities, how you feel about it, what gets you through, and hopefully it will even help those that are in the cancer process right now.”

Having a positive environment to share their lives and develop relationships can have actual affects on their fight with the disease.

According to Positive thinking and healing, an article written by David Carnes at Livestrong.com, “The strengthening of the immune system through positive thinking can lead to many different health benefits, including lowered risk of various forms of cancer.”

“In addition to the physiological benefits of positive thinking, the psychological benefits are considerable--increased energy, a stronger libido and a better sense of well-being.
Stevenson can attest to the power the mental and physical benefits of a positive environment.
“Physically I feel stronger,” said Stevenson. “Mentally I’m better off.”

The people at the YMCA welcome anyone regardless of what they are going through. The job and the people she works with mean a lot to Last, and she means a lot to them.

“I think she is wonderful,” Vansteenburgh said of Last. “She is very caring and she cares about everybody in the program.”

Members agree that Last makes Livestrong a positive place for survivors.

“Maggie is a dedicated person and I think she takes to heart a lot of our problems,” said Stevenson. “Once you tell her about something and she knows about it, she tries to help you out.”

The Livestrong program is a healing environment where Last and these survivors come to learn from each other.

“I’m telling everyone I meet about it, because I think everyone should know,” Vansteenburgh said with an emphatic smile. “It’s a wonderful thing.”