By Zoya Naqvi and Priya Shahi
Holding one end of a pink elastic rubber exercise band in each hand, Caryn Cooper stretches her arms as far from her torso as she can.
Following her lead are eight cancer patients who join Cooper every Saturday morning at the Sid Jacobson Jewish Center for a therapeutic dance class to celebrate life and dance to the beat.
The class kicks off the spring session of classes run at the Nancy Marx Cancer Wellness Center located at the JCC center, where specialists improve the well-being of cancer patients through exercise programs.
“When you’re dealing with an illness such as cancer, a lot of times you’re dealing with a lot of different emotions, and oftentimes you’ll feel very lonely and depressed,” Cooper, dance instructor and M.A. of dance education, said. “Even though you’re having a hard time, in the class you’re having fun and forgetting about everything else.”
As a form of therapy, dancing has been shown to improve self-esteem and overall well-being, according to a study by the National Institute of Health released in 2018. Cancer patients who exercise at least 30 minutes a day become more socially active, confident with their body, and less depressed.
“Movement becomes another form of medicine,” Ather Bano, oncologist and cancer researcher at Capital Health, said. “Exercise like dance is a great opportunity for people undergoing cancer treatments to take their mind off things.”
The importance of body language and facing patients towards each other in a circle between dance moves allows patients to give each other compliments and say positive words of affirmation to build social connections, Cooper says.
Cancer exercise specialists urge patients to move at their own pace, Cooper says. In some classes, patients that are in the stage four of cancer dance on chairs. Other exercise programs like Strength for Life and Dance for Wellness are embodying this idea that patients at all stages of cancer should be able to exercise.
“I do see a lot of joint problems from the medication, so we do limit their activity in a way that’d be better for them,” Debra Hughes, co-founder of Strength for Life, said. “The whole point is to get them moving in any way they can.”
The fluid arm and leg movements are tailored to trigger blood flow in specific areas of the body to reduce swelling and nerve damage, which are common side effects of chemotherapy.
“It helps to reduce the side-effects to treatments — helping with balance, regain a sense of confidence and good feelings about one’s body,” Martha Eddy, exercise physiologist and movement therapist, said.
Breast cancer patients in remission who exercise can lower their risk of recurrence by 20 to 40 percent, Jan Albert, one of the three women founders from Moving For Life, said.
The mind-body technique links back to other forms of exercise related to dance therapy like yoga and tai chi where the key ingredient is reducing stress.
“I had discovered a way to regain my strength,” Annie Rosen, breast cancer survivor and Moving For Life participant, said. “I had a future again.”