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Survival Tactics

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Exercise helped Wendy Rahn beat breast cancer. Now she’s helping other survivors realize the importance of staying active during their own recovery.

Wendy Rahn has never been one to let others tell her what to do. In 2006, for instance, after doctors twice dismissed a lump in her breast as insignificant, the political science professor from St. Paul, Minn., insisted on having it removed. She just had an instinct that something wasn’t right, and that instinct turned out to be accurate.

She again bucked conventional advice in early 2007: Rather than resting after post-reconstructive surgery, she began a regular exercise regimen. She had discovered research that showed working out could help her get healthy.

And later that year, when many discouraged her from putting her time and energy into creating a nonprofit organization, she founded Survivors’ Training to help spread the word about the importance of exercise to cancer survival.

Rahn’s tenacity hasn’t just saved her own life — it has become a life-sustaining resource for others, too.

Discovery to Recovery

Rahn, 47, was slipping on a swimsuit in the summer of 2006 when she first felt the lump. “It felt like a bone that was right next to my breast bone,” she recalls. “I got a little concerned because it didn’t seem symmetrical.”

She went in for a mammogram and an ultrasound, and the radiologist cleared her, suggesting she had nothing to worry about. A surgeon also took a look, noted that Rahn had no immediate relatives with a history of breast cancer, and recommended she check back in a few months. When she returned that fall, her doctors still weren’t worried. Rahn was, however, and insisted that they remove the lump and have it tested.

As Rahn feared, the biopsy results showed the lump was malignant. Not only did she have breast cancer, but she also had precancerous tissue, known as lobular carcinoma in situ, which indicated she was at risk of developing cancer again.

Though she was shocked by the news, Rahn says she felt like she didn’t have time to react emotionally. “I was so focused on learning about the diagnosis and making the decisions I needed to make,” she explains.

To reduce the chances of the cancer returning, Rahn chose to have both breasts removed in late November 2006, a process she says was made bearable by the support of her husband, Jay Coggins, and 10-year-old son, Aaron. She also began hormone therapy.

All the while, she read medical journals to learn about the latest cancer research. She was surprised to find again and again that exercise correlated with long-term survival. “No one on my healthcare team had bothered to tell me how important exercise is [for cancer survivors],” she says. “It’s not exciting nanotechnology kind of science, but it’s good, solid research — and it’s falling through the cracks.”

Rahn collected three binders full of research supporting the link between staying active and surviving cancer. Her oncologist, once reluctant to recommend exercise to cancer patients, couldn’t argue with the evidence and supported Rahn when she decided to make herself an unofficial test case.

In early 2007, while still going through a series of reconstructive surgeries, Rahn — who’d always maintained a healthy weight but only exercised sporadically — began working with a personal trainer. Twice a week, they focused on building her upper-body strength, which had been compromised by surgeries and reconstruction. She also began running on a treadmill and added yoga and Pilates to her regimen. “Within three months, I was able to run three miles, had regained all my shoulder mobility, and my balance had improved dramatically,” she says.

From Survivor to Survivors’ Training

The more Rahn studied — and experienced — the link between exercise and cancer recovery, the more convinced she became that she had to do something for the thousands of cancer patients and survivors who could benefit from what she’d learned.

“I realized that I couldn’t wait for the healthcare system to take action, or for the drug companies to take action, or even the academic researchers to take action,” she says. “That’s when I learned how to put together a nonprofit organization.”

She began developing Survivors’ Training (www.survivorstraining.org) in the summer of 2007, and in early 2008 used a partial leave from her job to devote more energy to the venture. She set three goals for the organization: to educate cancer survivors and healthcare professionals around the world about exercise and cancer survival; to provide a space for survivors to work out; and to encourage insurance companies to improve their reimbursement policies for cancer survivors who exercise.

Creating the organization wasn’t easy — or painless. In addition to spending hours raising money, Rahn had to invest savings she’d initially earmarked for her son’s college fund. Still, she says the grateful emails she’s received from as far away as Australia make her realize her hard work has been worthwhile.

In January 2008, she opened the first Survivors’ Studio, a workout space just north of the Twin Cities. There, qualified instructors guide members and drop-in visitors in strength training, Nia, yoga, Pilates and tai chi, while top cancer experts lead workshops in meditation, healthy eating and stress reduction.

“Women can come to classes without their ‘hair’ or prosthesis and be comfortable,” says Deborah Graul, one of the first to join the program. “The studio has helped me regain confidence in my body.”

A New Outlook

Rahn’s commitment to spreading the word about exercise’s effects on cancer survival has helped survivors not only rediscover their confidence, but has also given them hope, inspiration, and a supportive, caring community. It’s made Rahn stronger, as well.

“I’m a different person than I used to be,” she says. “I don’t have time for BS anymore — if you’re not going to help me, get out of the way. I have a sense of purpose.”

Erin Peterson is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

Success Summary

Meet: Wendy Rahn, 47, a political science professor from St. Paul, Minn.

Big achievements: Surviving breast cancer; beginning a regular exercise regimen; creating Survivors’ Training, a nonprofit organization that aims to raise awareness about the link between exercise and cancer survival; receiving the Inspiring Spirit Award from the Minnesota Lynx women’s basketball team in July 2008 for her work with Survivors’ Training.

Big inspiration: Providing other women the information and assistance she wishes she’d had during her own experience with cancer. “It’s amazing — I have heard from people from all over the world.”

What worked: Using her strengths as a researcher to build on her recovery. “I’ve done research for 20 years, and at the university I had access to medical journals and reports. I have huge binders full of articles relevant to recovery.”

What didn’t: Expecting her doctors to have all the answers. “I discovered the information about exercise and recovery on my own. I had to be my own healthcare advocate.”

Words of Wisdom: “The last thing people want to do if they’re in chemo or if they’re recovering from surgery is exercise. But you need to have someone who can give you a little tough love. Have friends and family take care of the wash and the grocery shopping, but also make sure they take you on a walk around the block. You’ll need it — and you’re worth it.”

Learn more about Wendy Rahn and Survivors’ Training at www.survivorstraining.org.

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