CT Challenge Center’s message to cancer survivors: You are not alone

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Yoga instructor Merri Muller teaches a class at the CT Challenge Center for Survivorship in Southport. (Photo by Julia Pemberton/CT Challenge)

The brand-new CT Challenge Center for Survivorship in Southport is still a work in progress, but its message to cancer survivors is firm: You are not alone.

Opened Oct. 1, the shiny new structure beams when the sun shines in through the massive windows. The center, touted as the first of its kind in the United States that is unaffiliated with any hospital, is the outcome of one survivor’s dream.

 

A multitude of victories

Jeff Keith of Fairfield, the co-founder of the CT Challenge along with John Ragland, and president, was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a malignant bone tumor, at the age of 12. Two weeks later, his right leg was amputated above the knee and he underwent a year and a half of chemotherapy.

The fateful diagnosis was 38 years ago.

Keith has since survived — and thrived, growing up to be captain of his high school ski team, an NCAA lacrosse goalie at Boston College, the recipient of an MBA from the University of Southern California, and a high-yield bond salesman for more than 18 years.

He began his philanthropic pursuits just after college, when he became the first amputee to run across the United States. He covered 3,300 miles in nine month as tribute to Terry Fox, a cancer survivor who died while attempting to run across Canada.

The run across the United States raised more than $1 million, which Keith donated to the American Cancer Society.

Keith also went on to become a husband to wife Karin, and father to their three children.

He credits exercise and good nutrition with helping him overcome many of the side effects of his cancer treatments, which included some toxic drugs.

He wanted to help give other cancer survivors a resource for learning how to empower themselves, and be supported emotionally and socially.

 

The challenge begins

In 2005, the CT Challenge was born with the mission of starting the first clinic in Connecticut for adult survivors of cancer.

Mission accomplished.

With close to $9 million raised — and 18 partners across the state — the dream is housed at 250 Pequot Avenue in Southport.

Programming, however, began almost two years ago with an outreach program in Bridgeport, a 2006 partnership with Yale’s cancer center, a partnership with a breast cancer survivor center, and two support groups at the Fairfield Public Library.

The support groups are now held at the new center, along with many other resources and activities for cancer survivors.

Exercise classes include yoga, meditation, Pilates, and indoor cycling. The center offers personal training as well.

There are nutrition classes, one-on-one nutrition counseling and a 12-week wellness program.

Locker rooms and exercise facilities are designed to help accommodate the needs of cancer survivors.

In exercise rooms, shades may be drawn if the participants want privacy.

Bathrooms are designed to minimize germs for those susceptible to infection. Showers are extra large with a changing area for privacy.

And the trainers have knowledge of the different issues cancer survivors face and how to manage their exercise routines.

The center has registered dietitians, and nutrition classes are free for 30 days. Registration includes all classes, costs $100 per year and includes three free personal training sessions. One-on-one nutrition sessions are available at a reduced rate. Classes are subsidized.

 

It’s about helping survivors

“We don’t want price to be a barrier,” Tamara Deyle, program director, said. “No one will be turned away.”

And the center wants to be taught by the people it serves.

“We were able to learn from our survivors what they wanted,” Deyle said.

The group works with doctors to learn about what ancillary help cancer survivors might need to survive and thrive during and after treatment.

“We have a medical advisory board, with top researchers and experts in the field,” Deyle said. “They’re able to watch what we do and give feedback.”

Next spring, the center will hold a survivorship conference, including a naturopathic doctor.

One thing the center wants people to know is that it is not a referral center or hotline for medical care.

“We’re not here to refer people to medical doctors,” Ms. Deyle said.

The center wants survivors and their caregivers to feel empowered before, during and after they navigate the maze of options available to cancer patients.

“Every survivor’s needs are different,” Deyle said, “but there are certain common threads.”

The main thread is a sense of community, according to Deyle. And while the focus of the center is nutrition and exercise, these activities are a way to bond with others.

The center also has a video series, available on its website, ctchallenge.org. Topics include sexuality, relationships, nutrition, and yoga. The website also lists survivor support resources across the state.

“For example, a woman in Danbury might not want to come down here daily,” Deyle said. “She could [find] programs in her area.”

There are also stories from survivors and many other resources on the website.

“When people don’t know where to turn, turn to us,” she said.

 

Getting the word out

The center’s biggest challenge right now?

“Spreading the word that we’re here,” Deyle said.

They are trying many avenues.

“We’re reaching out to doctors,” she said. “That’s major.”

They are trying to keep up.

“There are 13 million survivors worldwide,” Deyle said.

The center wants to provide hope and inspiration to as many survivors as possible.

“Attitude is so important,” Ms. Deyle said.

The hours of the center are based on the class schedule. Information is available at 203-292-8722.

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