The story Helen wants to share is one of perseverance, love and hope. She has a long history with the YMCA beginning with opening of the North Y in 2009. Since that time, she has been dedicated to her fitness and overall wellness, taking group exercise classes and training for a triathlon, all while building relationships with staff and members along the way. But it wasn’t just Helen who enjoyed the Y, the whole family found a place including her son whose time in the pool helped with his therapy. It was the relationship with Deborah MacDonald, the Health and Wellness Director at the North YMCA, that helped her move through the greatest challenge of her life, a diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Deborah encouraged Helen to maintain a focus on wellness, giving her the green light to keep up her health during chemo treatments, by doing what she could when she could. After being unable to participate at the Y following surgery, it was Deborah again who helped her re-engage when she was ready, by kicking off the holidays with the 12 Days of Wellness challenge. Helen was happy to be back.
During one of her visits to the Y she noticed a My Y Story that celebrated the success of one of our members, a graduate of the LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program which provides support and tailored physical activity for cancer survivors. Her oncologist was familiar with the program and suggested she pursue it. This opportunity to join other cancer survivors was both exciting and scary, but she vowed to go into it with no expectations and an open mind.
The program incorporates two aspects: community time where the group gathers to share their journeys, challenges and successes, and a tailored physical activity element.
It was during the community time that she sometimes struggled hearing her peers’ stories of recovering from or moving beyond cancer as her disease is a lifetime diagnosis. She wanted to honor her cohorts’ experiences but felt her story stood apart as she continues to fight hard to live. Helen didn’t give up and began to gain strength both physically and mentally. She learned how being vulnerable makes you stronger. Thanks to the Y and the program, Helen found “a place where she was allowed to be brave.”
At the conclusion of the 12-weeks, she found herself wishing the program would never end. She wanted to share the transformational experience with other survivors any way she could, especially with those with a metastatic diagnosis. So, she took action, and joined the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA Alumni group and attended the LIVESTRONG conference. It was then that she decided she wanted to give back and took the 80 hours of training necessary to become a LIVESTRONG Volunteer Coach’s Assistant. Now she could provide the type of support and encouragement she experienced, for others. Helen’s training has prepared her to begin facilitating a Quality of Life group for those living with metastatic or other lifelong cancers. This group is expected to launch in October and will be open to any survivor in the community who is living with a lifelong diagnosis.
Not only did this experience with LIVESTRONG at the YMCA change Helen, it changed her family. Married to her husband for 33 years, they have nine children, eight girls, and one boy ranging between the ages of 12 – 30 with the second grand baby due in November. With the diagnosis, Helen’s initial instinct was to protect her family from the consuming fear and anger she experienced as she felt she was being robbed of time with them. Thanks to LIVESTRONG, she learned a new language, one of trust, openness and love. Now they share her journey together as a family. We now have the “freedom to experience happiness and joy, and real life,” she says. Now, it’s “how we spend time together as a family. Through the YMCA connection there was hope, and options, where there might not have been any. Now every day we wake up we celebrate!”
Her wellness journey continues, and her family celebrates the recent scans that give her a status of NED, No Evidence of Disease. Now if you see Helen, she will likely be telling both her story and the YMCA’s to all who will listen so she can help others have hope and not be as fearful, to encourage them to be open.
She is no longer consumed with “What will my legacy be?” Instead she wants it to be that she really lived each day to the fullest and that she can leave a lasting and loving imprint on each person she meets.
Helen’s LIVESTRONG classes brought her to the Central Y where she quickly realized that the “culture of the Central Y was a very special place.” She wants everyone to know that “this is community and it is awesome.” It is a place where you can reclaim life, where teens find their new selves, and that at the Y “we’re helping people live! This is a brave place. I can be brave here.” As she discovered the community of the Central Y, she was surprised that even as a long-time YMCA member, she didn’t really realize the depth and breadth of the work the Y does. While for her the North Y will always feel like home, the Central Y has her heart.