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Part 2: Creating safe and effective STOTT PILATES® programming for a client with breast cancer

STOTT PILATES programming for a breast cancer survivor

In January 2018, Sharon Crowe received a devastating diagnosis— metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her bones. She began taking medications and painkillers to manage the pain and spread of the disease, and had to stop practicing Pilates, something she’d been doing for five years.

Read Part 1: How STOTT PILATES® helped me find the mental and physical strength to fight for my life >

Read Part 3: Modified STOTT PILATES® exercises for a client with breast cancer >

But it didn’t take long for her to start missing her exercise routine. A month later, she was back at Uxbridge Pilates Studio, but with a modified program created by her STOTT PILATES Certified Instructor and Total Barre® Qualified Instructor Anita Connolly.

“I wasn’t able to lie on a mat anymore, and I couldn’t stand for long periods of time. I also couldn’t sit on hard chairs. So for an hour I sat in my comfy, padded chair while Anita guided me through a complete workout, targeting my legs, arms, and most importantly, my core. I’m not ashamed to admit that the modified workout, in my modified chair, made me sweat. For the first time in a long time, I felt good, physically and mentally, and I knew that Pilates HAD to be part of my prescription for living with cancer,” Sharon writes in this inspiring story.

In Part 2, instructor Anita Connolly explains how she modified her programming for Sharon’s needs.


Q: When Sharon told you she had metastatic breast cancer, but still wanted to practice Pilates, how did you respond?

Anita: It is important to remember that Sharon and I were friends before she was my client. Even though I had never worked with someone with cancer before, I knew I wanted to do everything I could to help her out. I had seen the difference Pilates had made in the lives of other clients, as well as myself, and I knew it would be a good thing for her. We also have a unique relationship that allows us to interact with each other in a very straightforward way. If I felt like she was wimping out or starting to feel sorry for herself, I’d call her on it and bring her focus back to what we were working on.

Q: How did you modify your programming for her needs?

Anita: I knew that I would have to modify exercises for her since there would be some limitations, but I felt that I would be able to find the movements that would be appropriate. Much of my programming plan depended on Sharon’s state of health and mind on that particular day. I kept track of what we did each session so I could repeat the exercises that worked well, and discard the ones that weren’t as effective. A lot of times it was a case of trial and error. We’d try out something new and if we got good results, we’d stick with it. I knew that one of the most important things for Sharon was to give her a sense of accomplishment

Q: What was your main focus for Sharon?

Anita: I mainly wanted to keep her comfortable and keep her moving. We know that movement is critical for a healthy body as well as a healthy mind. I wanted to make sure Sharon was feeling successful with her program every day. Cancer has a way of making people feel like they’ve lost control. I knew this would be a way for her to be in control of what she was doing, and the sense of accomplishment at performing an exercise well – even if it was a very modified exercise – would go a long way to help her self-image.

Q: What sort of exercises or pieces of equipment did you use and why?

Anita: When I teach, I often think of and talk about it as playing. Our studio is equipped with all kinds of bands, balls, rollers, and other props, so we’d just pick the toy we wanted to play with that day. Keeping a sense of playfulness in the workout made it seem more like fun than work. As her workouts progressed, we started working on the larger equipment, like the Reformer. Again, our main focus was to keep her moving in her whole body, while still protecting the areas that were compromised.

Q: How did you find that balance between pushing her and motivating her, and making sure she was comfortable and safe?

Anita: I think it is really important to keep communicating. It was easy to sense the days she needed more time to talk and the days she was able to push a little harder. The longer we worked together, the more I knew when to ask for a little more. Often it had to do with her medical appointments. When she got good test results back, she had a completely optimistic outlook; when the results were not as good, we had to move a little slower.

Q: How do you feel about what you were able to accomplish with this client and how has it shaped you as an instructor?

Anita: I’ve often said that I have the best job in the world. I get to play every day with my clients and the bonus is seeing them improve. I feel thankful that I can have such a positive influence on my clients’ lives. It definitely motivates me to learn more and continue to grow as an instructor. If I can gain some additional knowledge that will help other clients improve their quality of life, I’m in. It makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

A version of this story was published in Pilates Style magazine. Read it here >

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