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By Denise Woodin, Director of Community Impact and Social Responsibility
Published in the Rye Record, July 20, 2018
Twice a month, Michele Santos takes the elevator to the seventh floor of Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla. There, she puts on her brightest smile—not a stretch for someone who has always been upbeat—and warmly greets the leukemia and lymphoma patients who are undergoing treatment. Some days, she leaves inspired. And some days she goes home and cries. Some days, her volunteer work hits a little too close to home.
In March 2014, Michele was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) and underwent a bone marrow transplant at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In the years that followed, one sister and then a second, succumbed to different types of leukemia. It was, Michele said, “a very dark time in my life.” During a recent conversation with a Rye YMCA staff member, Michele recalled how, at the Y, she found a ray of light in the midst of her most difficult challenges.
Born in New Jersey, Michele married at age 23 and followed her husband Manuel to Mt. Vernon, NY. The couple raised two children, now 23 and 18; Manuel also has a 34-year-old son from a previous marriage. Michele worked in the medical field, scheduling appointments and handling front desk duties and remained physically active. “I was a multi-tasker,” she said. “I used to exercise by walking and doing videos at home.” When she was diagnosed with leukemia, her work and her exercising came to a halt. “I had to be very careful to be around the public because my immune system was compromised,” she explained.
Nine months after her bone marrow transplant, Michele was purchasing a wig in a shop on Central Avenue when “a wonderful lady” handed her a card for “Mondays with SOUL RYEDERS”, a monthly day of complimentary services for cancer patients at the Beauty Bar and Salon in Port Chester. From there, she learned about LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, a free 12-week small group program that helps cancer survivors re-gain their strength.
When she started LIVESTRONG at the YMCA in February 2015, Michele was suffering from a mild case of neuropathy from the medications and chemotherapy and had put on unwanted weight. She also had “a lot of leg and knee issues” and was having trouble with balance.
“My coaches were so supportive and… motivating,” Michele recalled. “When somebody is encouraging you so much, even when you don’t feel like being physically active, it feels good, it really does.”
“All my life I’ve been a happy person,” she continued. “But that was a very hard time. I found life again when I came to the Y. I associated myself with wonderful people; it was my second home. By coming here, I had a schedule, [I was] getting physically fit, I was mentally in a good space and I met other patients and survivors here. I don’t think I would have recovered in a mental way [as fast] if I didn’t happen to fall upon this wonderful program.”
Even though she’s back at work—first as a recreation aid in the Ardsley School District and now as a legal assistant for a law firm—and has to travel from the east side of the county, Michele tries to work out at the Rye Y three or four times a week. “I love Zumba”, she reports. “I’ve done kickboxing. I’ve done the yoga classes. And I like the swimming.”
With that discipline, she has lost the extra weight she gained during treatment. “It took me a good few years to lose 15-20 pounds. But I did it. So to me, it’s like ‘it didn’t happen overnight, but that’s not going to stop me. Each pound I lost it was like ‘you see? That’s because I did Zumba today! That’s because I did the gym today. I went swimming! I’m not done. I just want to be a healthier version of the old me.”
“That’s not going to stop me” might well be Michele’s mantra. Reflecting on her volunteer work with the American Cancer Society, she said “it’s very important to me because every day that I wake up, I feel that I’ve been blessed with a second chance at life. A lot of people don’t have that second chance. I need to do this. I’m very passionate about it.”
“Some days it’s very rewarding,” she continued. “Some days, I leave and I cry. I am human, and you just know that every time you go there you’re going to meet somebody new, with a new story. And you may make them feel a little bit better because you understand. Then there are the ones who are in such a sad state they can’t hear you. But that’s not gonna stop me. This is my path now and I love it.”
For more information about LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, contact Elana Reynolds at email@example.com or at 914-967-6363, ext. 206
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