Jaime Gukeisen came to the North Brandon Family YMCA as a two-time cancer survivor who could barely walk the treadmill for eight minutes.
After six weeks in the YMCA’s Live Strong class, a free program for cancer survivors, the 36-year-old Brandon mother of five girls was “bigger, badder and stronger,” she said.
She had fought cervical cancer twice, fought off the effects of chemotherapy and radiation and was determined to fight off the fatigue that had overtaken her body. Her daughter’s ballet teacher at the YMCA told her about the program at a time when she could barely rally off the couch to make it to her bed, Gukeisen said.
“After that, I knew I had to get back my energy,” Gukeisen said. Last week, after going through the class, she and her husband walked the five-mile Miles for Moffitt fundraiser for the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute.
Gukeisen is one of dozens who have gone through the 12-week Live Strong program at Tampa area YMCA’s, not only regaining strength, but connecting with others who have gone through similar ordeals, said Maureen “Mo” Chiodini, wellness and sports associate vice president for the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA.
“They get in group classes to re-establish their strength and for the social aspect,” Chiodini said. “It’s twice a week for an hour. They are assessed at the beginning of the classes and at the end, for balance, strength and stamina. It really is life changing.”
The Live Strong philosophy is “start low and go slow,” Chiodini said. “It really helps with every aspect of their healing.” Cancer survivors who have gone through breast cancer, leukemia, lung and prostate cancer, you name it, they’ve welcomed this program, she said.
Not all have completed treatment when they start the class. Some are in the thick of it. “If they need to, they can pause, finish up their treatment or whatever the issue is, then get back in the program,” Chiodini said.
Dedra Griffith, of Brandon has been breast cancer free for five years.
“I have two little people at home I have to catch,” she said, referring to her 8- and 11-year-old children. “When I started Live Strong, I could do about 15 minutes on the treadmill. Now, I can do one- to two miles. I have more energy to chase the little people.”
Class members participate in strength training, cardio training and even learn about foods that can help them keep cancer at bay. On one recent day, a senior dietetic technician from Moffitt spoke to a group about building “a plant-based plate” that could help them introduce more cancer-fighting antioxidants into their diets, more lean meats, fruits, grains and vegetables.
Barbara Foster, of Dover, working the bicep machine at the YMCA on Kingsway Road, is a breast cancer survivor. She’s been free of cancer for a decade now, but she still lacked the strength and support she felt she needed, she said.
“You need something to take your mind off things,” she said. “Here, I get a lot of one-on one.”
Diane Jorgensen of Seffner found out about Live Strong when YMCA volunteers came to her church about a year ago. “I dragged my husband, Arthur, over here with me” and both took part in the program, which is also free to family members. Now, as a Live Strong alumnus, Jorgensen said she has joined dance classes, cardio fitness and more.
“I feel lucky I made it to the 10-year mark,” Jorgensen said. “And I tell everyone I know about this program.”
A new class will begin in June at the North Brandon Family YMCA. A Live Strong class begins in Plant City on June 3 and the Campo YMCA in Valrico will offer a new Live Strong class the first week of June, as well. Campo will add two additional classes in July.