Yoga Teacher Brings Fitness Program to Teens Living with Cancer Melinda McAuliff, January 2012
It all started with a young man named Zach, an aspiring athlete living with cancer who passed away two years ago. A part of the legacy he leaves behind is the bond formed between two women who saw a need and had the vision to bring it to fruition.
“I was diagnosed with my first cancer when I was 26,” says Leah. “Sixteen months after remission I found out I had Hodgkins Lymphoma. After coming through that experience, I started looking for resources for people in their 20s and 30s with cancer.” At that time there was nothing available, but that’s when she met Zach.
“Zach was also reaching out to other young people like him. Meeting him for the first time was a very special experience - he had never met another person his age with cancer.”
Leah describes him as the kind of person who wanted to do everything. “He lived his life off-the-hook and didn’t see himself as sick. He was so focused through unimaginable trials regardless of what he went through. He always kept is attention on the things he could do, no matter what he couldn’t.”
While he was on his sixth type of chemotherapy, Zach competed in 16 athletic events including 5Ks, a duathlon, and triathlon.
“He had weights in the hospital. He would lift them, squeeze them – even the small things he could do to keep his strength were important to him. There was something about him and his drive to rally other people that inspired me,” Leah recalls.
About a year and a half ago Leah contacted Mary, a Rochester area yoga teacher and tri-athlete, remembering her as someone Zach knew. “I called her because I was going to do what I thought was the impossible– run a 5K. Mary said ‘You CAN do it!’ And that is what Zach said to me all along … of course when he said it, it sounded more like’ get off your duff and do it.’
“So I did. Mary helped me train and I ran my first 5k. It was a life altering experience for me and the kids I work with at Melissa’s Living Legacy in the Teens Living with Cancer program, “says Leah.
“I realized the activities we were doing were not ‘active’ and there was more we could do. I brought Mary in to do a segment on physical fitness and the kids responded to it like gangbusters,” Leah laughs.
“It’s funny – we didn’t know what to expect,” says Mary. “But the kids were captivated. I asked what activities their doctors recommend and found there were not a lot options. People just don’t know what to recommend.”
“Afterwards a few of us were talking about it and thought there has to be grant for this type of program. We started looking and were surprised to find there is currently no program – locally or nationally – that provides young people with cancer guidance on how to become physically healthy again.”
Mary, Leah and Lauren Spiker, founder and Executive Director of Melissa's Living Legacy, began work to create an 8-week program for cancer survivors age 13-22 called TLC Fit, to teach them how to exercise again. “This is especially important in the teen years,” says Leah.
“It’s such a critical juncture from childhood to young adulthood where we make decisions that shape our lives. In addition to facing the turbulent teen years, these young people are facing cancer too. Having someone show them how to be healthy again could be life altering.”
Lauren went in search of grants to fund the program, partnering with the University of Rochester to make the program a reality. With the foundation set for a structured program, Leah and Mary are gearing up to start the first TLC Fit program. An informational meeting about TLC Fit is being held on January 10 at Melissa’s Living Legacy on 1000 Elmwood Ave, 6:30pm. The full 8-week program will start on Jan 25.
Katie Devine, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor, University of Rochester
Lauren Bruckner, M.D., (medical advisor for TLC Fit) , Clinical Director of Inpatient Units at Golisano Children's Hospital at Strong
Additional funding to support the program is provided by the John F. Wegman Fund.
Rochester has a dynamic yoga community with students and teachers whose talents are as diverse and unique as the places we live and practice. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to recommend a fellow yogi (student or teacher) to be profiled on iRocYoga.
Mary Eggers is a triathlete who has set several amateur course records, raced in elite categories, secured overall wins at almost every distance, qualified for the Hawaii Ironman three times. She teaches yoga at Breathe Yoga where she developed the Yoga for Athletes program used with the Rochester Rhinos and several local sports teams.
Leah Sheareris the Program Coordinator at Melissa's Living Legacy, Teens Living with Cancer program and a two-time cancer survivor. She loves traveling, reading, writing and is an aspiring “re-athlete” ( a term coined by a friend for someone who never had the chance to be an athlete but is taking it later in life).
Lauren Spiker founded Melissa’s Living Legacy and launched Teens Living with Cancer after her 19-year old daughter passed away from leukemia. Her daughter left her with the challenge "If you have learned anything from me through all of this, do something with it to make a difference—to make things better."
Zach DeRidder was 23 when he and Leah met at Rochester General Hospital in 2007. He passed away on January 18, 2009.
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