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Survivor - Southport Edition

The Center for Survivorship—America’s First



Bikes are available in the lobby as part of the CT Challenge Community Bike Program, made possible by a donation from Sacred Heart University's Athletics Department.

photos by Kristin Burke

In October 2012, the Center for Survivorship opened in Southport, as the first facility of its kind in the nation. Funded by The Connecticut Challenge, the CFS, located at 250 Pequot Ave., is a wellness center designed to support cancer survivors through fitness, nutrition, counseling, and research. “It’s more than just a wellness Center. We’re really selling hope,” says founder and survivor Jeff Keith. With 8,000 square feet of space, members and their guests enjoy classes like Pilates, yoga, indoor cycling, and healthy cooking. Support groups, and even music workshops, provide a welcome outlet for survivors to share common experience and continue to heal. “When survivors come to the Center, we challenge them to push their limits. We help them raise the bar. Each bar is different but the goal is the same: to get each survivor back to a healthy, happy, strong life,” explains Keith.

One such survivor is Jen Dennison of Westport. After being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing treatment, she was eager to return to her active lifestyle. At this point the CFS was not yet in existence, so she started by taking a gentle yoga class sponsored by the CT Challenge, and held in a local art gallery. Once the Center opened, she continued her yoga classes there, and soon discovered how much more was on offer. Dennison visits the Center anywhere from three to five times per week, taking Pilates, TRX, and spinning classes, and also uses the cardio equipment. “I never felt comfortable going to a traditional gym, post-treatment. I’d had surgery. I had no hair. Everyone there is going through something similar. They didn’t think twice that I had lost my hair,” she explains. More important, she established strong bonds with the other women she’s met. “There’s a real camaraderie not found elsewhere,” she says. In March, Jen celebrated five years cancer-free.

When local freelance writer Meg Schutte first learned about the Center for Survivorship, she didn’t know that fewer than four months later, she would be diagnosed with cancer. “When I was diagnosed, I already knew about the Center, but I thought I had to get through my treatments and come out on the other side before I could join,” she says. She later understood that “survivorship” starts on day one of diagnosis. Since her treatments concluded, she has become an active member, attending yoga, meditation classes, and using the cardio rooms. She also participates in the weekly nutrition classes led by Paula Meyers, held in the on-site demonstration kitchen.

“We started by re-learning the science of eating,” Schutte says, “and now we’re doing lots of cooking.” As a result of Meyers’s classes, she completely changed the way she food shops, which is now driven by lots of fresh fruits and vegetables versus the “beige” foods that used to dominate her cart. “There is so much about cancer you cannot control, but you can control what you eat.” Her favorite part about the classes are that they become like a mini-support group. “We’re all in the same boat. Everyone there is a cancer survivor, so you feel ‘normal.’”

Wylie Blake, a campus minister at Fairfield University, was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, but it took her some time to start going to the CFS. “The first time I went in, I fell in love with it,” she explains, “but I was not mentally in the right place to be working out.”

Shortly after her treatments concluded and her energy returned, Wylie started by taking Pilates classes a few times a week. As she felt better, she was looking for more ‘hard core’, strength-based classes, and spoke to the Center about adding TRX to the schedule. Her suggestion was embraced, and now Wylie takes those classes. In addition to classes, she loves that she can simply talk about “normal things, like your kids and work” with other survivors. “It is a light in a very dark place,” she explains.

This fall, wellness director Tori Fairchild is excited to be adding new programming to the schedule. “We really try to give survivors a roadmap to incorporate nutrition and exercise. This way they are getting better mentally and physically,” she says. Survivors can check out the CFS with a free, one-month trial which includes all fitness and nutrition classes, one personal training session with a Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer, and unlimited use of the cardio equipment. Jeff Keith sums it up best: “People should be proud of being a cancer survivor. It just makes you stronger.”

Healthy Eating. Cooking classes are offered.


Cycle in Support
The Connecticut Challenge, co-founded in 2005 by Jeff Keith and John Ragland, began as a way to help cancer survivors through community support. Its biggest event, the CT Challenge Charity Bike Ride, inspires cyclists to compete in courses ranging in distance from 10 to 100 miles. “The best part of the CT Challenge is the opportunity it provides to celebrate and support survivors and also to honor those who did not win the battle,” says Keith. Hard-core riders will love the challenge of the all-new, two-day ride on July 24-25, which adds an 80 mile ride the day prior to the big event and runs from Bear Mountain State Park to the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport. 

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