Moving Forward: New program at BMC Cancer Center supports survivors

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PITTSFIELD — They sat in a circle, tennis balls beneath their seats, weighted balls against the conference room's walls. Exercise was on the agenda for this late September session of Moving Forward at the BMC Cancer Center, but first came some gratitude from the cancer survivors participating in the program's second-ever cycle. The previous week's homework assignment had called for them to note experiences for which they were thankful, so, one by one, the nine members of this cohort did just that.

Elaine Ricciarini of Pittsfield had enjoyed visiting Moments House in Dalton for some reiki. Elizabeth Burnett of Great Barrington had relished going for a hike, staying in the woods "all day." Linda Lyons of Windsor had gone mountain biking. And then there was Lucia Anastasio, the Dalton resident who grew up gardening in Bari, Italy.

"For the first time in years, I did my flowers," Anastasio said. "I had my hands in the dirt, and I was in seventh heaven."

A survivor of breast cancer and bladder cancer, Anastasio said that she had "never done anything like" Moving Forward before. Over the course of six sessions on Berkshire Health Systems' Hillcrest campus, Anastasio and her fellow participants were led through exercises designed to improve their physical activity, emotional health, nutrition and everyday living. Free of charge and open to any Berkshire County resident who has been diagnosed with cancer (as well as out-of-state residents receiving treatment at BMC Cancer Center), the group seminar, which will begin new cycles on Feb. 26 and May 20, is the brainchild of oncology social worker Sue Budz. Like Dr. Trevor J. Bayliss and the rest of the center's integrative health team, Budz believes that care must extend beyond treatment for cancer survivors. She compares the process to walking through a storm — chemotherapy, radiation, surgery — and then raising your head.

"'What the heck just happened to me? Am I OK? Am I going to be OK, and is the other shoe going to drop?'" Budz said of common post-treatment thoughts. "There's a tremendous amount of anxiety and unknown."

Multiple program participants referred to having "PTSD" after finishing their treatments.

"We all walk around with this cloud here," said Barbara Rock, of Adams, who said she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2017 and a brain tumor a year later.

Many participants also mentioned that they didn't want to burden their friends and family members with their struggles.

"They don't necessarily get it," Rock said, adding, "You don't want to hurt them, either."

Budz often hears that sentiment. When treatment is done, caregivers might think things can just go back to the way they were before the diagnosis.

"Meanwhile, the other person is like, 'My head is spinning. I have PTSD. I still feel like I have chemo surging through my body, and it's going to take me years to understand this,'" she said. "So, that creates this isolation."

At Moving Forward, however, participants found genuine empathy.

"It makes you feel like you're not alone," said Burnett, a breast cancer survivor who has also endured a multitude of broken bones since her diagnosis.

But the program isn't merely a support group. Meditative exercises, recipes and even acupuncture were all part of the six-week experience. They're backed by integrative health research.

"All of these practices that we've shown them — exercise, reiki, meditation, gratitude, writing, learning to sit and listen to somebody else, learning to sit with your anxiety and wanting to tell your story — there's purposefulness to that in the group," Budz said.

This blend of physical, nutritional and mind-body work exemplifies the center's integrative health approach, according to Bayliss, who wants these aspects of care to be talked about as much as chemotherapy and radiation.

"I believe very strongly in these things," he said.

The doctor was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia early in life, but integrative health care wasn't readily available back then.

"I sought this stuff out on my own," Bayliss said.

Moving Forward is intended to help fill that post-treatment care void in Berkshire County. Budz, who leads a meditation class at the center on Thursdays at 11 a.m., "deserves all the credit" for making the program happen, according to Bayliss. Many participants cited her as the reason they decided to try the seminar, including Bonnie Sumner.

"I didn't know that this even existed," the Pittsfield resident said.

The exercise-focused gathering resonated with Sumner and others who have struggled to return to their normal levels of activity after treatment. Bayliss' wife, Amanda, helmed the session, alternating information with movement instructions. Exercise can help limit side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea, and prevent recurrences, she said. The conventional wisdom is that 150 minutes of exercise a week is ideal, Bayliss added, but recent research also recommends two-to-three minutes per hour, if possible. Going to the mailbox, kitchen, laundry room — it's the little things that add up, she said.

"I'm glad to hear you say that," Sumner said.

Sumner has multiple birdfeeders outside her house, and eight months after receiving chemotheraphy, she doesn't always have the energy to get to all of them.

"You don't have to do them all!" Bayliss said.

The former Dartmouth College strength and conditioning coach had already gotten the group moving by then. The participants had started in a seated position, stretching a leg out and pointing a foot.

"I do this every morning," Ricciarini said.

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Next, they worked on their arms, raising them to the ceiling, lowering them to the floor, moving them side to side.

"I feel better already!" said Deborah Warden of Pittsfield.

"I go to a lot of Amanda's classes," Rock said to Warden from across the circle, "and I feel that way every time."

Bayliss teaches five free classes per week at the center that, like Moving Forward and other sessions at Hillcrest, are available to the anyone who has received a cancer diagnosis in Berkshire County or comes to the Hillcrest campus for treatment.

"The reason that is is because we fundraise from this community," Budz said. "We have an annual fundraiser. It's the community that gives to these programs."

For Bayliss, her lessons are reciprocal experiences.

"The best thing about my classes is the relationships," she said.

She noted that many of the participants are enduring similar mental and physical challenges. For example, breast cancer often brings with it lingering musculoskeletal problems.

"It's important to keep the arms and this whole area loose," she said of suggested movements for breast cancer survivors, lifting and dropping her shoulders at one point during the class.

"Frozen shoulder" is often a source of stiffness and pain for them, she added.

"That's what I have," Warden said.

The Pittsfield resident was diagnosed with breast cancer about five years ago. She was in the grocery store when she found out.

"I was lost," she said of her reaction.

On the final day of Moving Forward, Warden shared that she had begun to listen to her body and mind.

"I've learned to do things I don't want to do," she said.

Many participants expressed a difficulty to resume hobbies and other pursuits after receiving treatment.

"It was hard for me to get back into doing things," said Pittsfield's Ruth Reynolds, an avid walker.

During the final meeting, Budz stressed that it's important to make a schedule for various practices, actually writing them down.

"They'll never happen on their own, and there's never enough time in the day," she said.

Rock could relate. She had attended some sessions of the previous Moving Forward but didn't sustain the level of self-care she had envisioned.

"I've kind of slacked off," she said.

For instance, she found herself eating processed food, which is known to increase cancer risk, according to Michelle Nash. The oncology dietitian provided healthy snacks at the end of each gathering and led a session herself, stressing the importance of getting enough vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and calcium through a cooking demonstration. In an era of information overload, finding reliable information about diets can be a struggle for cancer patients, according to Nash.

"They don't know what to trust," she said.

Nash typically leads cooking classes twice a month at the center.

"My big goal is to decrease barriers to people doing it themselves," she said.

A chickpea and tuna salad was waiting for the group at the end of the final day. Budz had guided participants through breathing exercises and self-reflection; at one point, they wrote letters to themselves. They also filled out surveys, as the center aims to scientifically gather the program's effect on participants. Anecdotally, the impact was apparent. Anastasio said she would do the program again. She had long been "closed in"; Moving Forward has brought her feelings out.

"It took me my whole life to do something like this," she said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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