Anne Smith has a cancer wellness notebook at her home in Encinitas with a pair of sayings drawn in colored pencil on the back. One reads “My Cancer Has a Powerful Enemy—Me” and the second “I Believe That I Will Win.” The impetus behind those thoughts is the resolute power of positive thinking and action that flows naturally out of the soon-to-be 70-year-old Smith—along with an assist from North County Cancer Fitness (NCCF).
Smith, a retired elementary school teacher from the Carlsbad School District, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 35 and, after surgery and chemotherapy, was in remission for 15 years. Her second bout meant another surgery but, thanks to advances in detection technology, not the difficult post-surgical treatments. Smith was not so fortunate in 2013, when the stage four cancer metastasized, spreading to her lungs and spine. She endured nearly two years of chemotherapy and approximately 100 infusion treatments. Even that daunting regimen couldn’t keep her from working vigorously to resume an active routine that includes not only the gym but home gardening and regular trips to see her grandchildren in Oakland.
She has no doubt that it took more than the treatments for her to return to something close to her “pre-cancer” lifestyle.
“It’s the physical exercise and mental approach,” said Smith. “I attribute a lot of my length of life to exercising.” A big portion of that is supplied by NCCF.
It was after her most recent medical skirmish that Smith became associated with NCCF, a non-profit organization that provides free classes for all stages of cancer patients and survivors five days per week out of EōS fitness facilities in Encinitas and Oceanside.
NCCF was the brainchild of recovering cancer victim Deb Snyder, an athletic/fitness enthusiast who lived in Carlsbad but was unable to find a scenario that provided a workout option specific to the needs of cancer patients. So, she designed an option of her own at Tri-City Wellness and with the assistance of friend Deborah Pomerantz got it registered as a 501 C-3 entity. Her creation proved to be a sustainable success but Snyder passed away in 2016 and shortly thereafter Pomerantz was diagnosed and also became a casualty of the disease.
After a transition year following the loss of its two key stakeholders, the NCCF is back on track with a seven-member board, a new website, a newsletter, social events and last fall held a successful backyard concert/fundraiser. Retired healthcare professional and cancer survivor Carla Going is an enthusiastic executive director.
“This is a phenomenal organization and after a period where we were kind of treading water with the passing of Deb and Deborah, this is a ‘year of outreach’ for us,” said Going, a registered nurse and former Director of Scripps Women’s Health Pavilion, who also had a 17-year tenure at the Women’s & Children’s Center at Indiana University and Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). “We want to focus on making people aware of what we have here, sign them up and get them exercising.”
According to Going, the group is now in contact with approximately 350 individuals, from which a core troop of 60 participate in a variety of courses at the two EōS locations. Under the direction of Erszi Myers, an elite trainer at EōS, the re-tooled NCCF features not only Gentle Fitness Introduction and Fitness Boot Camp classes but offerings as diverse as kick boxing, zumba and tai chi—all addressing the special needs of cancer patients. There is also a member-driven walking session on Saturdays.
Myers, who did her undergraduate work at UC San Diego, has a master’s degree in kinesiology with focus on geriatric exercise and secondary focus on post-orthopedic rehabilitation and corrective exercise from A.T. Still University, a highly-regarded osteopathic medical school. She is also certified in cancer exercise and was instrumental in initially bringing the NCCF program to EōS (then Frog’s) and subsequently maintaining its stability through two ownership changes.
“I have always volunteered for things as long as I can remember,” said Myers, who grew up in Orange County and now lives with her husband in Oceanside. “After making San Diego my home, I wanted to find something local—the opportunity seemed right.”
EōS provides one of its workout rooms during unscheduled time slots and has talked about potentially making similar training opportunities available at all 48 of its locations. For now, having two of its three San Diego County locations involved is setting the groundwork for what Myers feels is a critical piece of the equation in beating one of the world’s most insidious diseases.
“This is much different than your average workout situation because there are a lot of considerations that have to be taken into account,” said Myers, who is also a member of the NCCF board of directors. “For instance, after having surgery, we have to be aware of the positions and movements that are allowable for each person.
“Many cancer patients are at risk for lymphedema or have neuropathy and may be at risk using certain types of machines or equipment. They often have to move muscles that need to be re-trained and, since they get fatigued more easily, need to be given a great workout that won’t leave them feeling down and out.
“Understanding all those little types of nuances is important. Getting them a better workout means they’ll have a better appetite, better energy and a greater sense of well-being.”
A total of four EōS trainers and three outside volunteers donate their time to the NCCF. Going has also started an educational series where every other month a specialist is brought in to present on a specific topic or method. They range from the obvious—proper breathing techniques or regaining balance—to the more entertaining, such as laughing meditation.
What the training corps is doing has the support of the most recent medical conclusions as well as personal paybacks that come with the territory.
“I first got involved as a guest instructor, then did a class and there was mutual love,” says 45-year-old Encinitas mother of four Amber Rogers, a kick boxing aficionado. “I’ve been holding my class here every Tuesday for the last three years.
“I absolutely love fitness. It’s one of the most important aspects of my life and for me to help people who have that as part of their life is important. Being involved in the cancer world has amplified that 1,000 times.”
Myers expects the local following to not only grow but be a model others will follow in the future. “We’re in a transition in the medical field,” said Myers. “The standard protocol with cancer used to be lay in bed and don’t do anything—that’s not what modern research is telling us.
“It’s shown how beneficial exercise is to recovery and it’s one of the only things you can do that doesn’t have any side effects. In fact, it helps to mediate many of the negative sides of cancer and has the potential to lower the recurrence rate. Who doesn’t want that?”
Seeing the progress in the members of her class makes Myers light up. “What’s cool is watching and being part of the transformation when they come here,” she said. “It’s an environment where people can find their footing in the world again, regain their confidence and feel good with others who have the same goal.
“To a person, they’re motivated, appreciative and non-judgmental. Everyone is very encouraging and even when they don’t have the energy, they’re here and happy—it’s very inspiring.”
When Myers first came aboard, Snyder sponsored her cancer certification process. In his wife’s absence, her husband, Scott, has continued that vision of developing a core of cancer-specific professionals accessible to guide patients in their physical recovery. Today, that scholarship program covers certification for any of the contributing trainers, providing far-reaching, long term benefits.
“Even if they don’t stay at our location it’s a plus,” said Myers. “They take that knowledge with them and help educate more people.”
The primary age of NCCF’s membership is 55-70 but includes some as young as 35. It’s essentially an all-female group today but men are welcome. More information on NCCF’s philosophy, programs and volunteer opportunities can be found at northcountycancerfitness.org. During the quarantine, NCCF will be offering online versions of some classes through Zoom.
An active promoter and recruiter, Smith considers herself lucky to be connected with one of North County’s ‘hidden treasures.’
“It shocks me that there aren’t more people involved,” says Smith, who was recently recognized during a volunteer luncheon as the member who attended the most classes. “I go three-to-four times per week because I recognize how much value there is.
“These trainers are so knowledgeable and, with typically around a dozen per class, it’s almost like having a personal trainer.
“The more you read about the relationship between exercise and cancer treatments, the more you realize how important it is. In some countries, doctors prescribe physical exercise as part of the rehabilitation and there are actually infusion clinics where people receive their treatment while on a treadmill.”
Listening to Smith, it’s easy to understand whey she “believes that she will win.” With North County Cancer Fitness, it seems she already has.