Cancer impacts all of us. A loved one is diagnosed. A friend faces the disease. You’re told cancer has invaded your body. There are no “good cancers.” Some may be more treatable than others, but any incidence of cancer makes one vulnerable to other cancers, to emotional distress, and to other diseases.

I don’t like to advertise my own cancer journey. I said from the beginning that I was more than a cancer patient. I am a wife, a stepmother, a grandma, a friend, a sister, an aunt, a teacher, a writer—so much more than a cancer survivor. I want to talk about it today, though, because you can help a place that helped me: Cancer Rehabilitation Institute.

My official breast cancer diagnosis came Thanksgiving week, 2016. That was the formalizing of what I suspected. After my routine mammogram, I was called back for a second one. Then came the ultrasound and needle biopsy. In the middle of the whirlwind of appointments, and recovery from surgery, I had pulmonary embolisms that were as frightening as the cancer. When a pastor friend asked me how he could pray for me, I asked him to pray for my smile. I wanted that back! And God answered. He answered other prayers related to my treatment.

Through circumstances only God could orchestrate, I was introduced to Dr. Reid Hayward, the director of the University of Northern Colorado Cancer Rehabilitation Institute (UNCCRI). The CRI is both a rehab clinic for cancer patients and a research facility in which the impact of exercise on cancer treatment and survival is researched. A cancer exercise specialist, usually a senior exercise science student, is assigned to assess the client, prescribe specific exercise program, and work with the client three times each week for an hour. Each specialist has taken classes on cancer and related topics. They are trained in how to work with patients going through cancer treatment and how to adapt to the clients’ needs.

The CRI changed my cancer journey. It changed my life.

At first, I was in survival mode. I went dutifully to my exercise sessions and forced myself to walk on the days between sessions, even when that meant wrapping my feet because of painful blisters that appeared overnight. By the time chemo was finished and I started radiation, I was stronger and had more energy. The radiation techs said to me, numerous times, “What are you doing to have this much energy. This isn’t normal.”

In December 2019, I had an epiphany. The cancer exercise specialists were working harder for me than I was working for myself. During the Christmas break, I began working out at home, doing cardio and strength training. When we started our sessions in January, I paid closer attention and tried to implement every piece of information in my off-days exercise. Then COVID hit. Maranda, my specialist, and Tim, our shadow, wrote up some exercise sessions for me to use. When it was obvious that the clinic would not re-open quickly, Tim took it upon himself to write exercise sessions for me—three a week from April through August. I sent him a record of my heart rate. He didn’t have to do that. I am forever grateful.