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Guest post: How the Rochester YMCA is helping cancer survivors find their strength

Guest post: How the Rochester YMCA is helping cancer survivors find their strength

DIAGNOSIS: You have cancer.

“Cancer." The word that is webbing its way into families and creating paths that are new for everyone involved. This is a path though that no one encourages you to travel but you are encouraged throughout the journey it takes you on.

Twenty years ago, my family had an upfront and close journey with cancer. My sister, Jaclyn, was 10 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Several years of chemo and weeks of hospital stays turned our normal family life into something unrecognizable. My sister also became someone I still knew but she no longer looked quite the same due to the drugs that were meant to help her fight this illness. When her hair fell out, she became a 10 year old girl who was now bald and who stood out in crowds. Her face became puffy due to the drugs and her movements became slower.

My sister fought and did everything possible to not only be a little girl but to fight and live. She lost her battle to cancer at the age of 12. A family should never have to go through a journey of cancer, but many of us have and are. I stayed quiet about this part of my life for many years because in all reality, my family and I are still healing from this tragedy every day. It is a pain that never goes away - a part of life’s story that few understand.

Still, our lives have a way of webbing into other lives and creating connections of healing in unique ways. Three years ago I was working at the Rochester Area Family YMCA as a Group Fitness Instructor and received an email asking if anyone would be interested in becoming certified to work with cancer survivors.

I had not shared my loss with my co-workers, and this email was a nudge that it was time to start sharing the story of my sister. It wasn’t a comfortable nudge but one that I knew it was time for. At my training, I sat in a room with a small group of other newly hopeful instructors. Next to me was an individual, who earlier in her life was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She was the same age as my sister. I saw hope and life in this individual and knew that cancer was not something that had to limit one’s life or experiences.

After training, I became an instructor for LIVESTRONG at the YMCA and went on to work with over 100 different individuals the past few years talking, interviewing, encouraging and providing them with the information that cancer survivors needed to get stronger in mind, body and spirit. The program is scientifically proven to help individuals succeed with their goals. I have watched the stories of cancer survivors bloom into amazing journeys of strength — right in front of my eyes.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a hospital room as my 18 year old brother was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia – b cell. Our tragedy from 20 years ago is once again a reality in our lives. As chemo, spinal taps and bone marrow biopsy became familiar words in our conversation, I knew that LIVESTRONG should be too. He has a big sister who can help him when he’s ready and the free resources that are available through the Rochester Area Family YMCA.

According to, my brother is one of an estimated 1,685,210 individuals in the United States diagnosed with cancer in 2016. My dad claims another number as he was diagnosed in early January with colon cancer. The Y is here to help everyone, but has a specific program just for cancer survivors. We are trained, ready and know that there are individuals in our community that can benefit from this free, 12 week program at the Y.

Join hands in support – encouragement – and remembrance, and register for the 2nd Annual LIVESTRONG Family Fun Run Walk on Saturday, Oct. 29. Funds raised at this event benefit cancer survivors and their families through the LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program. Registration is now open and all the information can be found on the Y’s website.

Donations are also accepted for this program and can be made online or sent to Rochester Area Family YMCA, 709 1st Ave. SW, Rochester, MN 55902. Walk, run, or make a donation and be part of the story for all who have heard the words, “your diagnosis is cancer”.

This story was written by Jessica Williams and published in partnership with the Rochester Area Family YMCA.

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