Women speak to the power of Pilates in breast cancer fight

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Catherine Kennedy, pictured top photo while in the midst of chemotherapy and the photo above after her recovery from breast cancer. She credits Pilates and working with JoAnn Fletcher for saving her life.

JoAnn Fletcher will donate 100 percent from her Pilates for Pink classes during the month of October to breast cancer research.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

During the past four years, JoAnn Fletcher, elite athlete, mother, Pilates instructor and breast cancer survivor, has become Shape magazine’s most successful West Coast fundraiser for the National Breast Cancer Research Foundation, contributing more than $30,000 through the program, Pilates for Pink. This October, she’s doing it again, through her Pilates class at Malibu Gym.

Last Sunday, Fletcher assembled a group of Malibu women in her Pilates studio-five women who faced the diagnosis, underwent surgery and lived to tell the tale, with the help of a pro-active, positive attitude, and a Pilates regimen under Fletcher’s compassionate eye.

“The surgery is bad enough and the chemo has you so up and down,” Fletcher, who came in second in her age group in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon earlier this month, said. “Pilates helped me power through it. The more you know your body and its capabilities, the more you’ll know how to get through something like breast cancer.”

More than a quarter million American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and experts agree that early detection is the key to survival. Fletcher uses Pilates, a core-strength exercise discipline developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century, as part of the therapy.

Bonnie Lockrem was diagnosed in 2004 and credits Fletcher with getting her out of “hiding” in the bedroom and into the gym again.

“If you have a TRAM flap done [a procedure that uses one’s own abdominal tissue to reconstruct breast], all your stomach muscles are severed,” Lockrem said. “Pilates helps you reshape and strengthen your abdominal muscles again.”

“Yeah, that’s what I had done,” Pat Cairns, diagnosed in 2007, said. “My husband said I might not be pole dancing anytime soon, but it helps to get you back in shape.”

Amid much laughter, generous hugs and encouraging compliments, the cancer survivors lay on mats practicing isometric exercises designed to lengthen and fortify core muscles. The women, all between the ages of 40 and 60, are in astonishingly toned shape.

“Pilates?” Cairns asked. “I couldn’t even spell it before. Now I have a friend who is 95 and still practices. She’s got great balance.”

“I get compliments on my balance,” Diane Carter, who was diagnosed in 2003, said.

Mori Rubin, whose sister is also a survivor, had practiced Pilates before her diagnosis and credits it with helping her recover physically.

“My shoulder is frozen from the surgery and Pilates helped me to be able to just get out of bed,” Rubin said. “After surgery, your body feels unbalanced and things don’t work the same. Pilates helps you overcome that.”

Both Fletcher and Carter emphasized the importance of an aggressive approach to a breast cancer diagnosis.

“My doctor said, ‘Your mammogram came back with a little something, but it’s probably nothing, so we’ll just check again in six months,’” Carter said. “My sister also had it, so I insisted on further testing right then. You have to make a pest of yourself.”

“Every woman should insist on an MRI,” Lockrem added. “It wasn’t until they did my mastectomy that they found how big the tumor was.”

Catherine Kennedy credited Pilates and working with Fletcher for saving her life. A single woman, Kennedy had to rely on a network of friends to help get her through the diagnosis, surgery and months of chemotherapy that was so debilitating, many times she would sit in the shower and cry helplessly.

“Surviving breast cancer comes down to the three Ps,” Kennedy said. “Preparation, prayer and Pilates. JoAnn changed my life. One month into Pilates with her and my figure changed. For the better.”

After her diagnosis, Kennedy obsessively researched the Internet for the causes and cures, and ended up contacting a doctor of Eastern medicine for herbs; she also went through her house, throwing out everything in the cupboards.

“If you don’t want the cancer to come back, you have to do everything differently,” Kennedy, who is 49 but looks at least 10 years younger, said. “From food to cleaning supplies-out. And I took what I would normally spend on my hair or clothes and put it into Pilates. And you come through.”

To help the next generation of “sisters,” Fletcher donates 100 percent of class proceeds during the month of October to the National Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Malibu Gym is also holding a silent auction Oct. 1 and 2, with dinners from local restaurants offered, jewelry donated by Irit Ehrlich and photographic art presented by Richard Ehrlich available for bid.

But Fletcher’s strongest message is in the benefit of Pilates.

“Pilates is great for your posture, your alignment and your overall fitness,” she said. “But it also gives you control and courage. That’s how you win.”

More information on the Pilates for Pink donation drive can be obtained by contacting the Malibu Gym at 310.457.2450 or online at www.malibugym.com