Joyce Chiavetta was initially reluctant to lead cancer patients and survivors in a brand new exercise program at the Greater Palm Harbor YMCA.
"There was no cancer in my family. I had no experience with it. I was worried I could hurt someone," said Chiavetta, 49, who was a personal trainer and the wellness coordinator at the Y when she was offered the position.
Then everything changed.
"A few months later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer," she recalled.
Chiavetta soon realized the collision of her personal health and her work life symbolized a deeper purpose.
"Right from the very beginning, even before my surgery, this program really helped me with my battle because I wasn't serving myself; I was serving a purpose for other people," she said.
Today, Chiavetta is a certified Livestrong instructor who leads cancer patients and survivors in a free 12-week course designed to improve strength, flexibility and confidence that can be lost during illness, surgeries and chemotherapy. While enrolled in the program, participants have all the benefits of a Y membership. They can use the pool, attend other exercise classes, even drop the kids off in an attended play area.
The YMCA of the Suncoast, including the Palm Harbor Y, was one of 10 YMCA associations around the nation to participate in a Livestrong pilot exercise program beginning in 2008. Palm Harbor was one of the original branches to get involved; officials there are now training other associations across the country.
Livestrong is cycling star Lance Armstrong's foundation, which was founded in 1997 and provides support to cancer patients and raises funds for cancer research.
The exercise program was developed by the pilot participants in conjunction with medical professionals because studies have shown that exercise is beneficial in combatting side effects of cancer treatments, said Livestrong executive Mike Roberts.
The program includes a pair of 11/2 hour classes per week. The classes start with communication. Instructors check in with participants to see how they're feeling, gauge their energy level that day, find out if anything has changed in their treatments.
They warm up on treadmills and exercise bikes before heading to the machines or free weights for strength training. The class ends with a cool-down period and conversation about upcoming events, cancer treatments, family issues, whatever comes up.
It's not just the exercise, participants are quick to say: it's also about camaraderie, acceptance and shared experiences navigating the mine fields of cancer.
Many of those who go through the program join the Y after its completion so they can keep up with their workouts. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, several graduates were in the weight room walking on treadmills and using the machines.
"I feel so much better when I'm exercising," said one graduate, 68-year-old Lois Jenkins.
Participants include men and women of all ages.
"They make you feel so comfortable, because going to the gym can be intimidating. But you come in and there's all sizes and shapes," said Brenda Brown, 62, of Dunedin.
Kim Ford of Palm Harbor signed up for the classes just days after finishing her last chemotherapy treatment.
The 39-year-old, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in March, said she originally got involved to push herself mentally and physically to "get busy."
The classes have given her confidence, increased her strength and steeled her resolve to get better and stay healthy.
"Attitude is everything. I've got to smile and hold my head up high because I'm getting a second chance at life," she said, dumbbells in hand. "Every day I wake up, I'm thankful to be alive and to see the sun."