When Scott Baker heard Livestrong at the YMCA was starting up in Saratoga Springs, he couldn’t wait to sign up.
He hopped into his car in East Greenbush and drove right to the Saratoga Regional YMCA.
“I’m a wreck. I need this program,” he told the YMCA.
Baker was recovering from yet another stem cell transplant for brain cancer. Thin and weak, the 43-year-old weightlifter and self-described “diet and exercise nut” had lost more than 60 pounds.
“I was wiped out,” says Baker, a tall, smiling man who has a small but noticeable bump on his bald head. That’s because when he gets chemotherapy, the life-saving drug drips into his brain through a portacath implanted in his head.
In April, Baker joined a small group of cancer patients in the free, 12-week program, which is funded by a grant from the Livestrong Foundation, the nonprofit organization founded by cancer survivor and former champion bike racer Lance Armstrong.
At twice-a-week classes with specially trained instructors, survivors dressed in bright yellow T-shirts are introduced to every piece of equipment and every program the YMCA offers, including cycle training, aerobics, weight training and speed walking.
“The first day, I did three pushups. I was thrilled,” says Baker. “It introduced me to things I never heard of. I did Zumba.”
When he graduated from Livestrong at the YMCA, Baker could do more than 30 pushups, and now, months later, he’s still coming to Saratoga Springs every week to work out with the cancer patients he met in the program.
“To see the emotion here, to see the changes we affect, it’s amazing,” said John Higgins, the Saratoga Regional YMCA’s project manager for Livestrong at the YMCA.
“I think there is nothing but good that comes out of this,” said Jenny Killian, who works with Higgins as a member coordinator. “They are creating new bonds, increasing strength, improving their health, doing things they didn’t think they could do.”
Livestrong at the YMCA can be found in 32 states. In the Capital Region, the Saratoga Regional YMCA was the first to apply for and win a grant.
Saratoga’s pilot program kicked off last November, and the first group of six cancer patients graduated in February. Another program with a new group of survivors started in April, and on Sept. 16, classes began again at branches in Saratoga Springs, Malta and Wilton.
On Aug. 28, the Capital District YMCA launched a pilot program with eight cancer survivors at its Schenectady branch and plans to begin the program again in January.
“We’re more than just a gym and a swim,” said Nancy Gildersleeve, director of healthy living for the Capital District YMCA. “You’re giving someone a better quality of life.”
Mary Shimp was diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer. She had surgery to remove a kidney, an adrenal gland and her spleen.
“When I went into the hospital, they told me to get your affairs in order because you are not going to be alive in three months,” the 62-year-old Saratoga Springs resident said.
With 79 stitches in her abdomen, she couldn’t bend over to tie her shoes.
Shimp, who was very active before she became a cancer patient, says the Livestrong program has helped her physically and emotionally.
“I’m getting strength and endurance,” she explained. “I’m exercising two to three days a week. I can tie my shoes.”
Getting together with other survivors was an unexpected bonus.
“The Livestrong program has become my family,” she said. “Everybody encourages everybody.”
Any cancer patient 18 or older can sign up for the program. Patients need clearance from their doctors, even if they are not in treatment.
Richard Skrika, a 66-year-old Wilton resident who has Mantle Cell Lymphoma, did chemotherapy while he was taking the class. He was looking for more flexibility and endurance but had never exercised before.
“And it worked,” said Skrika, a jazz pianist who plays with bandleader Skip Parsons. “We did everything. We did all the machines, we did bikes, we did aerobics. We did zumba.”
His favorite was the recumbent exercise bike.
“It’s comfortable. I like the yoga, too. I can’t do it all, but it’s relaxing,” Skrika says.
“All the people who come here are positive people,” said Carol Gundersen, 66, of Saratoga Springs.
Gundersen is a master swimmer who has competed in the Empire State Games and was ranked third nationally in the 50-yard backstroke.
“I’ve been a jock my whole life,” she says.
Then breast cancer changed her life. After chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy, she developed lymphedema, a chronic swelling and buildup of fluid in her chest tissue.
“I was afraid to exercise because of the lymphedema. I had trouble getting motivated,” she said.
Livestrong at the YMCA helped her lose weight and make new friends.
“One of my goals is to swim and compete again,” Gundersen said.
The instructors and coaches who work with the survivors choose to be in the program and attend an intensive three-day training that covers physical issues, like colostomies, and emotional issues.
“They learn how to empathize. They have to connect with people,” said Killian.
In better shape
“Livestrong is going to save my sanity,” said Tracy Gutermuth of Saratoga Springs.
Gutermuth, who is 42, was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer two years ago. After a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, she developed an uncommon post-mastectomy condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
“It involves nerves and muscles. My body reacted badly to surgery. I couldn’t lift a half-gallon of milk,” she said.
“I’m living with this pain because of this program. Exercise is good for your mood. I’ve bonded with other people. We motivate each other. If it wasn’t for the program, I’d just be lying on the couch at home in pain.”
Gutermuth, who wasn’t into exercise before, has quit smoking and lost 10 pounds.
“I’m in better shape than I was before I had cancer,” she said.
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or email@example.com.