How does exercise help cancer patients?

Jeri Lau had several certifications and a successful personal training business when she added cancer exercise to her fitness arsenal. Encouraged by a friend, Lau approached Wellness House with the idea of a class for women with breast cancer.

Seventeen years later, Lau is the oncology exercise specialist at Wellness House, where she leads 22 classes a week, each designed to help people with cancer gain physical and emotional strength for their cancer journey.

Three of those 22 classes cater directly to women with breast cancer.

"Breast cancer is the No. 1 cancer in women," Lau said, and the Pink Ribbon Fitness classes are among the most highly attended at Wellness House. Held in person each Monday and Tuesday and online on Saturday, the classes offer women 45 minutes of cardiovascular exercise, strength training, stretching and more.

Women attending the classes are at varying places in their cancer experiences. Some are still awaiting surgeries, while others are regaining strength and flexibility following a procedure. Some have had reconstruction after mastectomy, while others had a lumpectomy or lymph node removal. The classes offer modifications and options for everyone.

"Slowly but surely, we're bringing them back," she said of those recovering from treatment.

For women anticipating future surgeries and treatments, exercise can help them build strength to ease their recovery. Prior to attending a fitness class, new Wellness House guests must obtain a release from their doctor before taking part in assessments to determine their current fitness level, their goals and their limitations.

"We assess where they're at," Lau said, and together determine the best way to get each person where they want to go.

For some women, the goal might be as simple as holding a hair dryer or fastening her own bra.

As with all forms of exercise, the benefits of Pink Ribbon Fitness go beyond the physical, Lau said. Exercise releases endorphins, which help to decrease stress. Women are encouraged by one another as they share their experiences, ask questions and slowly regain their own physical and mental strength. In some ways, Lau said, the Pink Ribbon class doubles as an informal support group. Women leave the class empowered, not only by their own physical abilities, but by one another.

"That's huge," she said. "They need each other."

Lau likes to play upbeat music, creating a fun and lively atmosphere.

"I think music is a big tool," she said.

Sometimes, she slows things down, dims the lights and adds yoga or another mind-body experience.

The move to online offerings due to COVID has broadened the reach of programs like her fitness classes. Women now can go on vacation or head south for the winter without missing a class.

"It's a blessing," she said.

Those who want to exercise but prefer not to attend a class also can benefit from Lau's expertise. With permission from a woman's doctor, Lau and other Wellness House instructors can design free, personalized workout routines that help women at all stages of their cancer experience reach their goals and feel better along the way.

- by Sandy Illian Bosch

Author Bio

Sandy Illian Bosch is a contributing writer to The Hinsdalean