“I am Strong:” Survivor Fitness Promotes Healthy Movement in Women Affected by Breast Cancer

June 24, 2021 by
Credit: Brandy Toomer
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“I am strong.”

Brandy Toomer, co-founder of Survivor Fitness, a program designed to promote healthy movement and mobility in breast cancer survivors, has her athletes say this before their sessions. Each woman says their name and age, followed by those three words: “I am strong.”

  • “You would not believe how hard it is for these ladies to say this about themselves,” Toomer says. “I had one lady who would break down every time we had to say it.” 

The big picture: Survivor Fitness is a wellness initiative that uses fitness to support breast cancer survivors. The program, which runs for eight weeks and incorporates yoga, strength training and health coaching, operates out of New Ulm CrossFit in New Ulm, MN, and is funded by B the Light, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting women affected by breast cancer.   

  • “Our goal is to reshape the standard of breast healthcare and improve the quality of life and outcomes through fitness,” states a social post from New Ulm CrossFit. 

How it started: Survivor Fitness was created by Toomer, co-owner of New Ulm CrossFit, and Dr. Cori Jordan, a member of the gym. Both women work at the local hospital: Toomer is a surgical technologist and Jordan is a surgeon who specializes in breast surgeries and practices.  

  • “You know how CrossFit brings [people] together? In the same sense of this, it’s still bringing people together. That’s how Cori and I met,” says Toomer. “We work together, but she started CrossFit before she started working at the hospital.”

Toomer says the idea for Survivor Fitness came around last October when New Ulm CrossFit decided to be a part of a fundraiser put on by B the Light; throughout the month, the gym created and raised money through hero WODs dedicated to women in survivorship. 

  •  “After that, we were just like… this is such a big thing, even in our community,” Toomer says. “[Cori] comes up to me and says ‘These women are missing out on so much on this support thing, I want to give them something.’”
  • “She says, ‘I need a health coach for my breast cancer patients,” Toomer, who has her L1 and PN1, continues. “And I want you to be their health coach.’”

Soon, the pilot program was up and running: B the Light stepped in with funding and through the organization and Jordan’s patient list, Toomer says they were able to “gather a few ladies and say ‘let’s do this.’”

The program: For the eight-week duration, each Survivor Fitness participant has two days of strength work and one wellness day, which can be anything from yoga and meditation to self-care and nutrition. 

  • “I wanted to base it off of strength,” says Toomer, regarding her coaching. “I didn’t want it to be high-intensity.”
  • This, she explains, is because of the wide range of her athletes. Her pilot group included a 33-year-old and an 80-year-old, both over a year into survivorship, a middle-aged woman 10 years into her journey, and some women still in treatment. 

Toomer ended up basing her strength portion around deadlifts, back squats, and simple EMOMs of pushing, pulling, leg, or core movements. For her, it was all about creating options for “these ladies who lost so much range of motion and mobility and have neuropathy and you know, who are still going through immunotherapy.”

  •  “I knew their upper bodies were going to be a wide range of what they could and could not do, so I focused on the lower body,” Toomer explains. ”To keep that strong, I told the ladies that this is based more off of that functionality and functional fitness — you know, when I talked about the deadlift, it was always like… How many of you pick up laundry at home? Or pick up your kids’ toys? You need that strength and that movement.”

Beyond the physical benefits, this program, for Toomer, was about showing the ladies they can “still do it.”

  • They can “get away from this mindset that everyone grew up with that [they should] you know… rest, don’t do anything, don’t overexert yourself, don’t lift anything heavy, you have to relax and let your body heal itself,” she continues. “Now, it’s… you have to keep moving.
  • “I told them that we don’t have to add weight to know that you’re getting stronger. I can take two inches off of your box, and know that your range of motion, you’re just getting stronger by being able to lift or push yourself those two more inches,” she says. 
  • “Even just this mindset, if that’s what they take from it, just learning that kind of thing, then it’s a success for me as well.”

Moving forward: There’s little question about it — Survivor Fitness is set to grow. Their pilot program was a major success, and Toomer is considering ways she can expand before their next cycle starts in September. 

  • “I told these ladies that [the pilot program] wasn’t just great for them, it was great for me. We all felt this bonding, and I could be myself,” Toomer says.
  • The hard part, Toomer adds, is people reaching out who are in survivorship from other types of cancer — B the Light, their funding, is centered on breast cancer survivors.
  • “Of course my head starts spinning and I want to help everyone right now,” Toomer says. “I said, if I can get you into the program, I will, even if I have to find you a donor myself.” 

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