Survivor Strong: New Class Fights Cancer With Fitness

Updated: 02/25/2014 7:52 AM
Created: 02/25/2014 6:21 AM
By: Laurie Stribling

Melissa Jackson looks like your average 20 something. She's active, eats healthy, just graduated college and loves being outdoors, but already she has a story of survival.

"In November 2012, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma," Jackson said.

At just 26 years old, Jackson's world turned upside down.

"I couldn't believe it," Jackson said. "I was the healthiest person. I was teaching group fitness. I ate healthy. I was doing personal training, but all of a sudden I had this life-threatening diagnosis."

Jackson said she went through chemotherapy and radiation for about four months. She also said her hair thinned. While she never became completely bald, the change was difficult.

"I was just really lonely," Jackson said. "Especially being so young, not having other 26 year olds knowing what it's like going through that."

Jackson said she didn't like being out in public, and that included one of her favorite places.

"The gym is the last place you want to be because you're losing your hair, you feel like crap and you're sick," Jackson said. "That was really hard to not do what I loved."

A little over a year later Melissa's cancer is in remission. She's back teaching classes at the gym, but this time she's surrounded with people who fought the fight.

"It's too bad, but we've all been through it," cancer survivor Betty Arbour said.

Survivors only: that's the policy here. A group fitness class at Essentia Health's Fitness Center is for cancer survivors or those going through treatment. Jackson started it in January.

"I really felt there was something missing in the treatment program for people with cancer," Jackson said. "They focus so much on the chemo and the meds and the treatment, but there's nothing that focuses on physical activity and keeping people active during treatment."

The new class is free and it doesn't require a membership at the gym.

"After the chemo, I had lots of joint pain and stuff, and this has really helped," Arbour said.

"I'd been looking for a class or something to get back in shape because chemo really kicks the crap out of you," cancer survivor Lynn Stoyanoff said.

"You're here and no one cares if you're good bad or otherwise," cancer survivor Sally Bebo-Anderson said. "Melissa just keeps encouraging you."

Bebo-Anderson is still fighting her third diagnosis.

"I have another year and half and then I'll be cancer free," Bebo-Anderson said.

She's had Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, lung and breast cancer. Bebo-Anderson had chemotherapy for eight years. She's had lung and breast surgery. She's also had radiation.

"You just go day by day," Bebo-Anderson said. "Someone always has it worse than you."

While Fit for Life is the name of the group fitness class, support group is the true title.

"First or second time, we all sat on our mats on the floor and talked," Arbour said. "That was great."

"It's just really nice to know there are other people out there," cancer survivor Cindy Broin said. "I actually decided to come to the class to see if I could help someone out who might be just starting out on their journey."

Jackson's class is just the beginning. She said she would love to make a career out of helping people with cancer.

"My dream job would be to start a survivorship program for cancer survivors because it's really missing," Jackson said. "I really think my experience could help a lot of people."

While life looks more normal these days, Jackson said she's forever changed.

"As much as cancer sucked, I am so thankful for the experience," Jackson said. "It has changed my life for the better."

Fighting something like cancer is hard, but it makes you survivor strong.

"I wasn't going to let cancer beat me," Jackson said. "You can fight back and take the reigns. Even though you have cancer, it can't stop you from moving."

The class is Tuesday and Friday at 1 p.m. at the Fitness Center at Essentia Health. For more information, you can give them a call.

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