LONGMONT— Ironically, it was the chemotherapy — a cancer treatment that often leads to loss of appetite — that prompted Angela Larson to put on extra pounds.
"During chemo, at least for me, the only thing I could eat was bullion and Cream of Wheat, and with that, you don't get a lot of nutrition in there," said the 41-year-old mother of two. "And the doctors are constantly, 'Well, eat this. Anything that you can get down, anything you can keep down, it's good, so just eat, eat, eat, eat, eat.' And you get into this routine of eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, and suddenly you're not in chemo anymore, and you're just eat, eat, eat, eat, eating,"
Larson, an ovarian cancer survivor, gained 28 pounds after finishing chemo. Since joining a new pilot program for cancer survivors at the Ed Ruth Lehman YMCA, she's down about 71/2 pounds.
Part of her struggle was even finding low-fiber, no-dairy foods she could eat. Surgery removed a portion of her cancer-ridden intestines, and some abdominal muscles and Larson now wears a colostomy bag to collect bowel waste.
"It sounds absurd, but you're basically learning how to live in your own skin again," she said.
Larson is one of six cancer survivors participating in the Livestrong program, which the Y began offering in November. The 12-week support group helps cancer survivors transition to a new sense of normalcy. The first group ended sessions Friday, and another round of groups is scheduled to begin this week.
"It's really kind of a gap in service — a specific program set for people that have survived cancer," said the Y's wellness director, Jessica Fernandez. "There's nothing else like it in the area, in the region."
In April, the Y was awarded a $3,500 grant from the Livestrong Community Impact Project to start cancer support groups. The program is offered at about 85 Ys in the country, but the Longmont Y was the sole YMCA in the state to be funded.
The Longmont Y sent three staff members to Chicago for training, including fitness instructor Maryam Moore, who now runs the program. Moore's uncle, Kesha Rizzolo, died in April 2012, shortly after he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. That, she said, motivated her to work alongside survivors.
"Livestrong people are survivors. When they get on a treadmill, they're gonna fight it out," Moore said.
The first group met twice a week for 90 minutes to try new exercises — Qigong, spin class, free weights. They also worked with a nutritionist. Sometimes, they just talked.
Many cancer survivors have to relearn to trust their bodies and find the confidence to even step inside a gym, Moore said. As part of the Livestrong program, participants receive a free membership to the Y for the duration of their sessions.
Moore recalled one session that was scheduled to be a weight machine workout. The group started sharing stories about their cancer journeys, and that ate up the entire 90 minutes.
And that was OK.
"The emotional support outweighs the agenda," Moore said.
And for many in the group, there's nothing like another survivor.
"It comes in when they're physically challenged because they have a chemo port. They understand when somebody cannot stand because there's a nephrostomy (urine collection) bag. They understand surgical sites," Moore said.
'Accept where I am now'
The friendly, intimate support group has the kind of camaraderie that forms from having survived similar trauma. They swap recipes and tips and share in triumphs and losses. When one of the women learned she'd have to return to chemotherapy, the group decided to move up their post-graduation potluck so she could attend.
During a class Feb. 11, high-energy music blared in a gym at the Y as Moore demonstrated a series of five moves intended to work the entire body.
"Find your rhythm. Find a rhythm that's challenging for you, that works for you," Moore called out as the group exhausted their abdominal muscles.
And then something happened.
One of the participants, Patti Vohs, abruptly left the class, tears streaming down her face. Another trainer followed her, grabbing a few tissues on the way out of the gym.
Outside the gym, Vohs sat at a table with the trainer, her feet up in a chair.
She later explained what happened.
"I so much wanted to be able to do all of that, and I knew physically, I couldn't," said Vohs, who competed in triathlons before she got sick.
In 2004, doctors diagnosed Vohs, then 24, with a rare form of pancreatic cancer. The next nine years would bring 24 surgeries that cut out two feet of intestines. Now with chronic pancreatitis, she has good and bad days, and still struggles to keep down food.
She looks like a typical 33-year-old woman, but her body is malnourished and doesn't absorb nutrients properly. Dizziness and weakness are common. Just a few weeks into the Livestrong program, a tumble down the stairs left Vohs with a broken foot, and doctors think malnutrition played a role in the break.
Once the class was over, one woman stopped at the table Vohs was sitting at and checked in.
"I was worn out today," Vohs explained. "I pushed myself through the one set and I was done."
"I'm sorry. I know how you feel. We all have days like that," the woman offered, prompting Vohs to nod in agreement.
Those kinds of interactions — especially from people who get it — make a world of difference, Vohs later said.
"They're been there. We've all struggled with something, so when I push that little bit, they notice," she said.
She said the group has given her the push she needed to get off the couch and dip a toe back into working out. It's also taught her to accept the limitations her body has imposed.
"This is my body. I have to accept where I am now and I have to look at where I was a year and a half ago," she said.
'Push your limit'
Angela Larson's 15-year-old daughter, Eliza, recalled when her mom tried to morph into Super Mom after the cancer. Any activities she or her 12-year-old brother, Nicholas, wanted to do, their mom made happen. Their mom admits she was determined to go 110 mph, to do everything, to make up for lost time.
"I, more than anybody else, expected myself to be 'more better,'" Angela Larson explained.
Lately, though, things have slowed down, and Larson credits the Livestrong group for that.
"It was the Livestrong that helped me say, 'OK. Stop. It's OK. Just breathe,'" she said.
Her kids have noticed.
"I noticed she has a lot more energy recently, and she's a lot happier," Eliza Larson said on Feb. 26 while helping her mom prepare a dinner of baked salmon, salad, lima beans and farro.
There have also been other changes. Before starting the program, Larson said she wasn't comfortable stepping into a gym or fitness class.
"It was probably a little bit of pride, probably a little bit of uncertainty and maybe a little fear thrown in there of, "Oh, will they be able to help me? Am I going to be able to modify this? What's going to happen if I pass out or have to suddenly leave?'" she said. "And being part of the Livestrong group was definitely a support group of people that get it. We don't have to explain to each other when our energy levels just suddenly plummet, or our coordination is off, or we don't have balance."
Next up on the bucket list is a half-marathon. Larson has scheduled a trip next January to run the Princess Half Marathon at Disney World. Her goal is to finish in under three hours.
Looking back, Larson calls her battle with cancer the ultimate endurance test that helped her build psychological stamina.
"You just really want to push your limits and see what you can do," she said. "Because you can do it."
To sign up for an upcoming Livestrong support group, email the Y's wellness director, Jessica Fernandez, at firstname.lastname@example.org.