The second time Sheri Reitz had breast cancer, doctors advised her to undergo a type of double mastectomy that required surgeons to remove muscle from her back and transplant it to her chest.
"It was a huge procedure," she said. "It was like being cut in half."
The invasive nature of the surgery meant Reitz would be in pain for months and, as her body slowly healed, doctors would wait nearly a year before prescribing physical therapy.
"The pain was so severe, people couldn't even hug me," she said. "I couldn't move my arms for a month."
By October of last year, she had finally healed enough to begin working with a physical therapist to build up strength in her back, arms and core.
But it was a suggestion that came last winter, while she was attending the breast cancer awareness event Pack the Place in Pink at Skyview High, that helped Reitz complete her healing.
A friend suggested Reitz enroll in a special class for cancer survivors at the Billings Family YMCA. The course is specifically designed to help cancer survivors recover the wellness and strength that can be lost through fighting the disease.
"I had exercised all my life, and I felt compromised," Reitz said. "I needed a steppingstone to help me along."
The class, LIVESTRONG at the YMCA sponsored by St. Vincent Healthcare, is a free 12-week program with certified trainers that's designed to help cancer survivors rebuild strength and muscle mass, increase flexibility and endurance, and improve movement and function.
"Sometimes going to a gym is so intimidating," said Mary Beery, director of the oncology service line at St. Vincent Healthcare and an enthusiastic proponent of the LIVESTRONG class.
That's especially true for those recovering from something as potentially debilitating as cancer. The class gives those patients a safe, non-judgmental way to return to physical activity.
But along with the physical, the class also addresses the emotional.
"When you become a cancer patient, your life gets filled with 'don'ts'," Beery said.
She encourages cancer patients to enroll in the class as a way to take back control of parts of their health. In the class, as participants work closely with a trainer and the mix in with other cancer survivors, they feel like they have some semblance of control and physical improvement back in their lives.
"You feel like you accomplish something," Beery said. "That's very empowering."
The classes are small and, by design, close-knit. The participants quickly bond and become a support group for each other as they work to regain some of the wellness they've lost. In some cases they provide emotional support as well.
"Our hearts were getting healed along the way," she said.
Reitz was in the spring class, which ended in May. During that time two of the participants saw their cancer return. One had to drop out as he began treatments anew. The other continued through the end of the course.
Everyone there understood the fears and the struggles of those two participants, Reitz said. They all played an important role in providing needed support.
"It's a safe zone to be all the things you are in the middle of that cancer," Beery said.
The next class starts up again in September and is open to all cancer survivors, not just YMCA members, who want to improve their health. It requires medical clearance from a doctor.
The workouts focus on cardiovascular work, strength training, balance and flexibility. A nutritionist visits the class to teach participants how good nutrition can help them find a better recovery.
"It works," Reitz said. "I'm strong."
She hopes more people learn about the program and use it. Robyn Horgdal with the Billings Family YMCA agrees.
"People need it," Horgdal said.
"I'd love to see other people support it," Reitz added.