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Exercise Plays Vital Role in Cancer Recovery


Serious illness can make us question our lives, our purpose and our goals. And that’s not always a bad thing. Just ask John Lehne.

Lehne, owner of 302 Fitness in Milton, started out as a personal trainer with the intention of working with athletes looking to buff up their game. Problem was Sussex County didn’t offer many opportunities.

Still there was important work to do. In September, his mother-in-law received a diagnosis of breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. She turned to Lehne to help her attain the quality of life she had prior to her illness. Lehne started researching ways to get the training he would need to become a cancer exercise specialist. He enrolled in home study, powered through the books and DVDs and passed the CES certifying exam, making him the second of three people in Delaware to obtain certification.

“The problem is patients get eight to 12 weeks of rehab one to three times per week, depending on what their insurance covers and then they have to cut them loose,” Lehne explains. “I pick up where they leave off.”

You might think that exercise has no role in a cancer treatment plan or that it might even be dangerous. But exercise is just as vital to the recovery of the cancer patient as it is to the cardiac patient or someone who has undergone joint-replacement surgery. Studies report that it can help speed recovery, reduce anxiety, lift the spirits and boost energy.

Cancer exercise specialists, like Lehne, are trained to tailor a program to the patient’s unique needs. Everyone heals differently. Moreover, there are many different types of cancers, treatments and side effects, each one affecting a survivor’s mobility.

“Patients who have had a full mastectomy have lost chest muscles and now must train their bodies to compensate using the shoulder,” he says. “Patients who have had TRAM flap reconstructive surgery will not be able to perform sit-ups.  Individuals with lower-body cancers, such as prostate or ovarian, will have abdominal issues from the surgery and will have trouble squatting.”

  John Lehne with patient.   

There is one similarity, though: Patients who have had lymph nodes removed or who have undergone radiation have a lifetime risk of developing lymphedema, swelling that can occur in one or both of the arms or legs. This is where Lehne believes a cancer exercise specialist can make a difference.

“I do warm-up exercises whereas in rehab they do more of a massage,” he says. “You want to catch it at stage 1 because then it’s still reversible.”

Lehne, who continues to work as a personal trainer, says there is no greater joy than helping people get their lives back. “That’s what makes my day—seeing people do something that they want to do and knowing I helped them do it.”

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