May/Jun
2015

After the Battle, Jessica Williams Helps Cancer Survivors Livestrong at the Rochester Area Family YMCA

Written by By Laurie Simon, Photography by Dawn Sanborn Photography
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Cancer is a life-encompassing ordeal. After treatment, many survivors are left facing a second battle. The body they knew before cancer is different—weakened by the destructive side effects of chemotherapy or altered by surgery. Fatigue and stress are a daily challenge, and the emotions associated with being sick can be overwhelming. Thanks to the newly launched Livestrong program at the Rochester Area Family YMCA, cancer survivors no longer have to face these challenges alone. 

Livestrong at the YMCA is a 12-week small group program for adult cancer survivors and their supporters. A joint effort of the Livestrong Foundation and YMCA of the USA, the program offers a holistic, research-based approach to help people affected by cancer reclaim their health and well-being. 

 

More Than a Work-out

Launched officially at the Rochester Area Family YMCA in winter 2015, the Livestrong program is already making a big difference for cancer survivors. Over the course of a session, participants learn how to exercise based on the condition of their body. After sampling different types of exercise, most are able to find something they truly enjoy. Their goals run a wide spectrum, from building muscle mass and strength to increasing and improving flexibility, endurance and functional ability. One survivor simply wanted to be able to tie her own shoes again. 

But the experience is about more than physical exertion. Equally as important, the program focuses on emotional well-being—providing a supportive community environment where survivors and their supporters can connect and form relationships. 

“It becomes like a family,” says Lori Yokiel, former membership engagement coordinator for the Rochester Area Family YMCA. “A lot of the times people will get involved in classes and become very close friends. It becomes about much more than fitness.” For cancer survivors, the benefits of Livestrong at the YMCA are obvious and abundant. For those who help lead the program, the rewards are just as rich.

Y instructors undergo extensive training to become Livestrong certified. The training—including everything from healthy lifestyle principals to courses on lymphedema and CPR—teaches leaders to help survivors exercise despite limitations and prepares them for potential treatment-related problems during the program and beyond. Helping cancer survivors stirs a unique passion in each instructor. 

Jessica’s Journey 

Jessica Williams is part of the original cohort of instructors to receive the training and teach the program. A group fitness instructor since 2013 and the new membership engagement coordinator at the Rochester Area Family YMCA, she says one of the things that impresses her most about the individuals she’s worked with in the Livestrong program are their positive attitudes and determination.  

“[They] are excited to be part of Livestrong,” Jessica shares. “They might be a little scared of starting to move more or to exercise in general. Some have pain and physical limitations that make it tough to participate, but they still show up and try hard. They are survivors and they are ready to take this next step.”

Jessica’ understanding of cancer—including how it changes lives and families—is deeply rooted. She was just a teenager when her 10-year-old sister was diagnosed with leukemia. It was a moment that branded her and her family forever, she says. For the next two years, she watched her sister endure painful treatments, recover from surgeries and lose her hair to chemotherapy. She was by her side when she took her last breaths. 

“No one gives you the path you are to take when you have to leave a hospital and never be with the person that is now gone,” says Jessica. “There is no follow-up. There isn’t a six-month check-up for the survivors of the cancer patient. The doctors and nurses you knew and relied on for knowledge and information and sometimes comfort, they don’t follow you out the doors.”

Finding Joy through Strength

While losing her sister was devastating, Jessica says the experience has helped sharpen her focus on the important things in life. As a busy wife, mother to three, blogger and fitness instructor, she seeks and relishes opportunities to find joy and think positively. Her role in Livestrong at the YMCA helps in both endeavors. 

The program fulfills the important need to support the increasing number of cancer survivors and their supporters, who find themselves in a transitional period not dissimilar to Jessica’s. Many have completed their cancer treatment and are shifting to feeling physically and emotionally strong enough to attempt to return to their normal life—or their “new normal.” 

“I won’t ever fully understand their lives and what they experienced before they came to Livestrong,” says Jessica, “[but when I work with cancer survivors] my heart stretches farther. I learn, feel and listen more intensely. I hope that I can help them understand how to comprehend this chapter of their life…how to find joy through their battle.”

Support for a Bright Future 

If feedback from the first few cohorts of Livestrong graduates is any indicator, Jessica and her teammates at the Rochester Area Family YMCA are hitting the mark. Following completion of a pilot phase in December 2014, Livestrong at the YMCA launched to great demand, resulting in waiting lists for many registrants. 

To sustain and grow the program, the Rochester Area Family YMCA depends on partnerships and philanthropic support. Inaugural partners include Mayo Clinic, Olmsted County Medical Center and other local organizations that serve a role in engaging cancer survivors through a whole-person approach. With support from a generous donor, the Rochester Area Family YMCA currently has funding to operate the program through approximately mid-2015. 

To learn more about participating, partnering or donating to Livestrong at the YMCA, contact Talbird Lovan, program coordinator: 507-287-2260 ext. 1013, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To learn more about Jessica Williams, visit “The Journey” at: smallchangesbigpicture.wordpress.com.

Laurie Simon, a freelance writer living in Rochester, Minnesota.

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