How Exercise Helps Me Manage My Pain

One patient’s experience with cancer and the Steps to Wellness program.
Rebecca Benes with her two children

by Rebecca Benes, patient, University of Vermont Cancer Center

I grew up in Shelburne, Vermont, and currently live in Jericho. In between, I moved to Ithaca, New York, for veterinary school and then to the Northwoods of Wisconsin where I got married and worked primarily as a veterinarian with dairy cattle.

In 2017, I had stage 1 melanoma on my scalp. I carried on with my life as a veterinarian in Wisconsin and started a family. In 2021, we moved back home to Vermont while I was pregnant with our second son. In June of 2022, I had a seizure at work that resulted in a nine-day hospital stay, abdominal and brain surgeries, and the diagnosis of stage 4 recurrent melanoma.

This diagnosis came at a hard time in my life. I had two young sons, my husband and I had new jobs, and we lived with my parents while we planned the construction of our house in Jericho. Everything was put on hold, and it felt like my world was ending. Recovery from surgeries and treatments was hard on me and my family.

In September of 2022, I was referred to the University of Vermont Cancer Center’s Steps to Wellness program, a rehabilitation and exercise program for cancer survivors. I was blessed with a supportive group of participants and great trainers. It was hard to get moving at the beginning of every class, but I always felt better by the end. I had ups and downs, with injuries and cancer-related side effects during the 12-week program, but I kept at it. I always returned to the movement because I knew it would help me. 

I completed the Steps to Wellness program just before Christmas 2022. By the holidays, I was hit with major side effects, including inflammatory arthritis, neuropathy, and gastritis, that immobilized me. I couldn't move or do much for a couple of months and lost a lot of the strength I’d built. When I finally felt well enough to return to exercise, I joined the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Made2Move program, to regain my strength and stamina. The program was led by the same trainers who were already familiar with my history and unique needs.

After completing a few 12-week sessions of Made2Move, I graduated and then joined the community fitness remote graduate class. When I logged into the class, I was happy to see the same trainers and other Steps to Wellness graduates I knew. Since then, I attend as many days as I can and feel like I'm getting and staying stronger. Exercise helps me to manage the pain in ways that medicine cannot.

I will continue to attend class as I continue to fight my cancer. It helps me manage the side effects of my treatment and supports my mental health. Participating in UVM Cancer Center community exercise programs over the past year and a half has helped me find structure in my daily life while disabled and out of work. These programs help me manage acute and chronic pain and recover from intermittent deconditioning as I fight cancer. I encourage each patient with cancer to speak with their care team about these and other programs that may help you strengthen your body and mind. You may be surprised by how much they help.

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