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Sewickley breast cancer survivor helps craft exercise DVD

| Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sharon Cowden thought she'd make her mark in medicine as a pediatrician.

Breast cancer was never part of the plan.

But the Sewickley pediatrician's battle to regain her strength after breast cancer was the genesis of an exercise DVD for breast cancer survivors rapidly becoming a part of post-treatment rehabilitation in Western Pennsylvania.

Cowden, 59, an avid golfer, has a simple message for survivors.

"'You can be better than you were before.' Before, I could hit a golf ball 150 yards, now I can hit it 190 to 200 yards," she said.

She'll take that message to Harrisburg this fall. Cowden and Janette Poppenberg, the American College of Sports Medicine-certified health and fitness specialist who helped her regain strength, were invited to give a presentation on the DVD, titled "Strength & Courage," at the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Conference.

Cowden, a mother of two and grandmother who entered medical school at 36, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. Shortly afterward, she underwent a lumpectomy and axillary node dissection, the removal of lymph nodes under the arm.

"You think the worst is over when you've had your surgery. ...Then I got a handout with eight pages of things I couldn't do anymore, including lifting more than 10 pounds. ... My physical therapist suggested maybe I should give up golf," Cowden recalled.

Cowden was horrified.

"I'm a pediatrician. I lift children all day long. Do you know how much babies weigh by the time they come in for the second visit?"

She worried about lymphedema, a complication that can result in the swelling and further loss of mobility in the arm on the side where the lymph nodes are removed.

A friend who knew about her concerns introduced her to Poppenberg. The 45-year-old trainer worked with Cowden for 18 months, slowly guiding her through stretching exercises, gradually rebuilding her upper body strength through weight training and introducing her to aerobic exercise.

Along the way, Cowden learned that researchers believe exercise dramatically improves the prognosis for breast cancer survivors — by reducing reoccurrence of cancer and helping to prevent conditions such as lymphedema.

But as Cowden and Poppenberg celebrated their success, it became apparent that many breast cancer survivors lacked access to such assistance.

"The more survivors we talked to, the more we realized they needed help. We saw women who were afraid to lift an arm for six months," Cowden said.

Poppenberg wanted to help spread the information that research was yielding about the value of exercise.

Others, like Kathryn Schmitz, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who has studied links between exercise and breast cancer recovery, and Dr. Adam Brufsky, co-director of the Breast Cancer Program at Magee Womens Hospital of UPMC, encouraged the women to produce an exercise DVD.

In 2007, with money from the Park Family Foundation, Cowden and Poppenberg began lining up assistance for the project.

Brufsky offers advice in the introduction on the DVD, noting that modest weight- and resistance-training coupled with an aerobic program can combat exhaustion, sleeplessness and swelling many women experience after breast cancer treatment.

Foundations and businesses stepped up to make the 60-minute DVD available for free to breast cancer survivors in Western Pennsylvania. More than 5,000 were distributed at breast cancer treatment centers from Pittsburgh to Erie. The DVD is available at Gilda's Club in the Strip District and the Cancer Caring Center in Bloomfield.

Those outside the region can buy it for $20 at the Web site strengthandcourage.net . To date, it has filled orders from 26 states and several foreign countries.

"As women, mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters, the best thing we can do for our friends is to make time to exercise, to go for a walk with them," Poppenberg said.

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