First, she ran the 5k.
Then the 10k.
And then the half marathon.
A year before, she couldn't walk 10 steps. The cancer treatment was exhausting, and Becca DeBee was stuck at home on the couch.
But once DeBee finished treatment, she started an exercise program at her local gym that was specially designed for cancer survivors. Now, DeBee is anything but tired.
“I really feel like I'm better than I was even before cancer,” DeBee said. “I feel like I'm in the best shape ever.”
DeBee, six other cancer survivors and a caregiver were the first to try out Livestrong at the YMCA. It's a free 12-week program that provides cancer survivors and their caregivers exercise training and a support group.
The program will start again in July at the Edmond and Earlywine Park YMCAs. It is a partnership with the Livestrong Foundation, a cancer support organization known for its yellow wristbands and association with famous cyclist Lance Armstrong.
The first step for the group members was to set goals, said Emilee Bounds, the health and wellness director at the Edmond YMCA. Goals ranged from being able to pick up a 24-pack of water at the grocery store to running a half marathon.
DeBee ran the Lucky Run 5k and the Redbud Classic 10k before completing the 13.1 miles of the Oklahoma City Memorial Half Marathon. Crossing that finish line was a huge step.
“There was some tears shed at mile 11,” she said.
DeBee found out she had cancer in 2008. It was in the early stages, and doctors were able to operate and remove it.
But in 2010, DeBee found a lump under her left arm. Doctors soon determined it was cancer, and it had spread to lymph nodes under her arm. They removed the infected lymph nodes, and DeBee went through a year of treatment that she finished in October.
Her cancer is now considered to be NED — no evidence of disease. For now, she is finished with treatment.
Through the YMCA program, DeBee received a personalized workout and learned about the gym equipment.
Bounds said the staff tested each person to see how much he or she could lift initially. The results were incredible.
“One individual only lifted 20 pounds on a leg press her first day and then lifted almost 200 on the last day,” Bounds said.
DeBee found that exercising gave her more energy than she had before her diagnosis.
“Before, I didn't take the time to really care that much about my health,” DeBee said.
“You just don't think about it really until you don't have it. Now, it's really important for me to take care of myself.”
The program wasn't just about working out, though. It was about supporting each other, too.
They knew when each other's PET scans and doctors' appointments were. They knew each other's war stories — the ports, the chemo, the surgeries. They shared it all.
For DeBee, the group helped ease her fears the worst had come true.
“Every cough or sneeze or bump or anything is fearful,” DeBee said. “You think, ‘Oh, it's back and I'm going to have to go through this all over again.'”
Dr. Nandita Keole of the Integris Cancer Institute of Oklahoma has seen a difference in cancer patients who exercise.
Keole, who works in cancer rehabilitation, said cancer patients, especially breast cancer patients, who exercise increase their energy level and also potentially decrease their risk for recurrence.
“If you exercise and keep your weight under control, you should be able to decrease your risk of recurrence,” she said. “That's another benefit of exercise. And, in general, exercise makes you feel good because it releases endorphins.”
Integris has program
The Integris Cancer Institute also offers an exercise and support program for cancer patients. In July, the institute will start a 12-week fitness program for people who have recently finished cancer treatment.
Known as SurvivorFit, the program will help patients address emotional and physical needs post-cancer. An introductory event is scheduled at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Integris Pacer Fitness Center, 5520 N Independence.
The amount of exercise a person with cancer can do depends on the type of cancer, the type of treatment and what the patient's physician recommends, Keole said.
“Ideally, it would be very beneficial for cancer patients if they go back to some level of exercise,” Keole said.
Just like with the general population, cancer patients will have a baseline of how much they can exercise. As far as what kind of exercise they should do, it depends on what they enjoy and what their doctors say, Keole said.
Research suggests cancer patients gradually ease back into exercise, Keole said. For example, a cancer patient could do up to 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise, she said.
DeBee is a mother of three — Leila, 7, Ellie, 5, and Harry, 3. Since the time DeBee started regaining her energy, her children have gotten used to Mom being able to take them to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Science Museum Oklahoma.
DeBee and her children are on the same page — no one wants to stay at home. Life is an adventure, and DeBee doesn't want to waste the health she has.
“I know what my prognosis is,” DeBee said. “I know there's a chance for recurrence, and I don't want to waste the time that I have being healthy and not having cancer at this time. I want to do everything I can do with the time that I have.”