Livestrong support group lives well beyond 12-week program

Times Observer photo by Stacey Gross Clockwise from left: Kim Slocum, Roxie Marino, Ingrid Fitzgerald, Jim Fitzgerald, Chris Kintner, Carolyn Kintner, Cheryl Scalise, Patti Benson, and Cynthia Simmonsen.

The Livestrong program has been going strong since 2012. So has the program’s third cohort; the group of a dozen or so who meets every single month, and has been doing so since they met for the first time in 2014.

Livestrong is a program offered at the Warren YMCA that offers a free 12 week membership to cancer patients and/or survivors as well as one support person.

Kim Slocum, the YMCA’s marketing and grant coordinator, said those taking part in the Livestrong program meet twice a week for a 12 week period for both health and wellness training as well as fellowship.

The idea behind the program is that it’s hard to feel understood when someone hasn’t been through what you’ve been through. For those whose lives have been personally touched by a cancer battle it can be hard when friends and family don’t have that experience themselves.

Empathy can go a long way, but true understanding is also important.

The experience of supporting a loved one through a cancer battle is often isolating in its own ways. That is why the program brings support people together as well. They can learn how to be supportive of their loved one’s health goals but they can also take some time to network with others who are caring for loved ones in similar situations.

“Every (Livestrong) group bonds,” said Slocum. “We’ve never had a group who didn’t bond.” But the bond between the program’s 2014 cohort just seems to have grown beyond that of other groups.

“We’ll know before we leave here where we’re going next month,” said Patti Benson. She and Ingrid Fitzgerald tend to chair the informal meetings, held at a different local restaurant each month. The fellowship that the group experienced in the twice weekly YMCA visits wasn’t enough for them, explained Ingrid.

The Livestrong days were spent with both craft and social times as well as opportunities to try different health and wellness activities and education about food and exercise choices when cancer is a consideration.

“We didn’t want to give it up,” explained Ingrid, whose husband Jim also comes to the monthly gatherings.

Jim was Ingrid’s support person during her 12 weeks in the Livestrong program, and he said he gained just as much from the opportunity to share experiences with others in similar positions as Ingrid did.

“We got to where we looked forward to seeing each other.” Jim said.

Part of what brought them together was their combined cancer story. But Ingrid said another element, is that “we were out of our comfort zone.”

She said she remembers the first few groups that people were hesitant to talk and get to know one another.

The program was prepared to handle that common challenge. The social hours were staggered by getting to know you activities. In one, said Cheryl Scalise, they were asked to tell five things about themselves. Through that activity, she and fellow cohort member discovered that they had graduated in the same year. It was also through introductory exercises that Ingrid realized her mother had taught Roxie in elementary school.

The connections were there, they just needed to be discovered. Once they were, said cohort member Cynthia Simmonsen, it was hard to break them.

For Cheryl, Livestrong offered an opportunity to be social that she might not have otherwise had. She lives alone and tends to unintentionally isolate when faced with challenges, she said. It would have been easy for her to just stay home, but it became an excuse to be social that ended up maintaining itself long before its intended ending point.

That opportunity to interact is maintained through another shared passion — lunch. Like everyone else, the cohort is motivated to continue getting together by the food that goes along with the fellowship.

“I just don’t want to miss the lunches,” said Simmonsen. “It’s an opportunity to keep getting out and interacting.”

Everyone in the group seems to have a natural role to play. For Chris Kintner and her mother Carolyn, who attended Livestrong in 2014 as Chris’ support person, that role is to be the cheer-bringer.

Chris is an artist, said Ingrid, and despite challenges of physical ability, he maintains a positive attitude.

“Chris is always smiling,” said Ingrid. “She’s an inspiration to all of us.” Chris got into Livestrong as a YMCA volunteer, which she continues to be as well.

While the Livestrong program is seeing a small decline in applicants, said Slocum, it remains one of her favorite programs at the YMCA because of the opportunity it provides to get out and be active while making new friends who share major life challenges.

And because she is well aware of what can happen for those who participate–at the very least, said Slocum, they learn some tools to make healthy decisions going forward. At the most, she said, smiling at the familiar faces of the 2014 cohort around the table, “this can happen.”