When Barbara Vinciguerra, the owner of Ardsley-based fitness studio Fit House New York, found out she had breast cancer in her early 50s she was shocked. As an avid exercise enthusiast and award-winning fitness instructor, healthy living was a way of life for her. She thought that it would inoculate her from cancer. That’s why when she went for her yearly mammogram she was surprised to learn that she had an aggressive form of cancer.
“I had never even set foot in a hospital before. I was the type of person that never got sick,” notes Vinciguerra. She ultimately elected to have a mastectomy and did not need radiation or chemotherapy, which was a conscious decision on her part. As the sole business owner of the gym, she hoped to resume work and her active lifestyle as quickly as possible. She also chose to have the surgery done with a procedure that would not affect her pectoral muscle’s range of motion, which was important to her job as an exercise instructor.
With a background in sports psychology, Vinciguerra knew that overcoming the illness would take not only physical but also mental fortitude. Her gym focuses on the mind-body approach to wellness. Going in for surgery while physically fit helped her recover faster and get back to teaching spin and boot camp classes. Within two weeks post-surgery, she was able to return to work and begin teaching.
Vinciguerra acknowledges that her experience is highly unusual; however, she does think that women can benefit from an exercise regimen before, during and after undergoing breast cancer treatment based on their comfort level. In fact, numerous studies show that being overweight at the time of diagnosis is linked with both poorer overall survival and poorer breast cancer-specific survival. It may also increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence, according to research highlighted on Susan G. Komen, the leading breast cancer advocacy group’s website.
Additionally, several studies show that exercise can help alleviate depression, release “feel good hormones” known as endorphins and aid in recovery. Vinciguerra says that the mental benefits of exercise for cancer patients should not be overlooked. That’s why Vinciguerra teamed up with Susie Mordoh, who created a deck of cards called Feel the Love Transformation Cards. The cards, available online and at Fit House New York, contain positive messages such as “let your obstacles become opportunities.” Originally the cards came in blue and orange and were intended for the general population but Mordoh noticed that they resonated particularly well with breast cancer patients. Mordoh surmises that the age of breast cancer diagnosis is usually a time in a woman’s life where she might be searching for more spirituality and that may be the reason why she got such a positive response to her cards from women with the illness.
Mordoh who was a student of Vinciguerra’s in an exercise class conceptualized the cards after undergoing a 50-pound weight loss transformation and successfully keeping the weight off for several years. Mordoh dubs herself as an “outlier” in the weight loss wars as so many people yo-yo diet and eventually put the weight back on. “I did it the old-fashioned way through diet and exercise,” but Mordoh credits a new outlook on life that helped her finally succeed in her weight loss journey.
The messages resonate for women with breast cancer as well as Vinciguerra’s fitness students. Mordoh and Vinciguerra co-teach a popular spin class at Fit House New York called Sunday Soul Ride. Each class is based around a theme or message and some of them have included the affirmations on Mordoh’s Feel the Love Transformation Cards. They’ve had PowerPoint presentations set up in the spin studio and Mordoh often educates the class about the benefits of positive thinking.
“The class really focuses on the 3Ms - music, a message and metrics,” explains Mordoh. Vinciguerra likes to use metrics as a tool to help students overcome obstacles. She feels that when students can face a challenge in an exercise class (e.g. uphill riding at high intensity) that positive thinking and strength can be transferred to life outside of the exercise studio. The duo plans to have several Sunday Soul Rides in October dedicated to breast cancer education to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Although each individual needs an exercise regimen that is right for them in consultation with their healthcare provider, Vinciguerra believes that spinning is a good form of exercise for patients returning back to the gym post-surgery. It is not high impact exercise like boot camp classes. Plus the participant can go at their own pace if they are feeling fatigued, which often happens during and after treatment.
“It’s so important for women to get their yearly mammogram. I had no symptoms or family history of the disease,” notes Vinciguerra. Luckily, with her positive attitude and dedication to exercise, she was able to come out on the other side a stronger individual who could help motivate others coping with the illness.
Stacey Pfeffer is a writer and editor based in Chappaqua.