The signs are everywhere, and they’re all good. To begin with, the parking lot is full at the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA in Santa Ynez, an impressive structure that evokes strength.

Inside, there’s lots of physical activity going on that shouts healthy lifestyles.

For Nicki Marmelzat, getting in shape is a lifelong endeavor.

“Both my mom and dad died of lung cancer,” said Marmelzat, Regional Health & Wellness director at the Santa Ynez YMCA and Lompoc Family YMCA. “My dad was a smoker, but my father was also in the welding business.”

Although her mom wasn’t a smoker, Marmelzat avoids speculating about her lung cancer.

“They were partners in the welding business, called Old World Metal Craft,” said Marmelzat, who moved to the Valley in 1968 and attended Solvang Elementary School, as well as Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.

“My dad died at 61,” she said. “My mom was 77. Back then, when you were diagnosed with cancer, it was pretty much a death sentence.”

Thanks to medical advances and treatments, the chances of surviving cancer today have increased dramatically. Because various types of cancer — from leukemia and sarcoma to lymphoma and myeloma — are well-known, the public has become acutely aware of the disease.

The number of new cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States in 2016 was estimated at more than 1.6 million, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Fortunately, the number of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis reached nearly 14.5 million in 2014, the NCI reported.

Partners in health

For cancer survivors in the Valley, there’s more good news. The Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA and Lompoc Family YMCA have partnered with Livestrong Foundation to help survivors stay fit. The foundation supports people facing cancer by providing resources and empowering communities to take action.

Livestrong at the Y is a free 12-week program for adult cancer survivors at local YMCAs. Trained wellness coaches work with each participant as they transition from cancer treatment to regaining physical and emotional strength. Participants also receive a three-month Y membership.

For Marmelzat, Livestrong is an extension of her professional commitment to good health.

“I’ve always been in the fitness-wellness field,” said Marmelzat, who raised her three sons in the Valley. “I owned a gym, a fitness center, from 1988 to 2002.”

After selling Club West Gym in Solvang, she retired briefly, before returning to work at the YMCA in Santa Ynez.

“Originally, I started as a group fitness instructor, and I loved that aspect of dance and fitness choreography,” said Marmelzat, noting the gym had 600 members. “At the time, there weren’t really any other fitness centers in the Valley, and there was a real need for them.”

Executive directions

With today’s diverse population, fitness needs have shifted somewhat to attract seniors and youth. For the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA, a renewed focus on healthy lifestyles has resulted in more activity.

Tommy Speidel, executive director of the Santa Ynez-based Y, estimates 6,000 different people come through the center each year. The keys to the Y’s success, he said, are volunteerism and community awareness.

“It was a group of dedicated volunteers that just kept pushing the Y,” Speidel said of the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA’s expansion in 2011.

“That was when the teen center and the gym and the free-weight room were added,” the executive director recalled. “That was a pretty amazing time period because that was when the volunteers did the fundraising and pushed forward to continue the expansion during the recession.”

Speidel, 37, said the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA’s leadership team and board members develop periodic strategic plans based on input from community stakeholders. The Y’s partnership with the Livestrong Foundation was partly a result of that input.

“We continue to evolve,” said Speidel, in his 15th year with the YMCA. “For our Y, some of the things we’ve been focusing on — like Livestrong — we’re looking at different options to help with chronic diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes.”

One of the benefits of working with stakeholders, Marmelzat added, is finding ways to implement and fund new programs like Livestrong.

“We’re very conscious about helping and serving the community,” she said. “That’s why we do these stakeholders meetings with a variety of people — from teachers and pastors to business owners.”

Livestrong roots

Although the Young Men’s Christian Organization (YMCA) was founded in 1844, the local organization tackled the cause of cancer awareness in 2013 with Livestrong at the Y. The program was initiated in cooperation with the Sansum Clinic, Marmelzat said, noting patient referrals now come through the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center.

Marmelzat, who started working at the YMCA 10 years ago as a group-fitness coordinator, was Health and Wellness director when the Livestrong program was launched in Santa Ynez. Extensive “prework” was put into the program, she said, including an intense training session in Chicago. Directors from YMCAs across the country met there and formed a cohort to learn more about Livestrong; specifically, how to implement it across communities. Training covered how to conduct facilities assessments to accommodate seniors and ensure accessibility for people with cancer.

“You work with them for anywhere from six months to a year,” Marmelzat said of the executive cohort.

Upon her return, she and YMCA staff met with doctors to instill confidence in Livestrong and request patient referrals.

In November 2013, 10 cancer survivors participated in the area’s pilot program at the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA.

“Most of them were referred by the cancer center [and] most of them were Valley residents,” Marmelzat said. “The program is open to anybody who has cancer, even if it was 10 years ago. Most of them were done with treatment and were ready for that next step.”

Livestrong today

In addition to Santa Ynez and Lompoc, 12-week Livestrong sessions are held at YMCAs in Montecito, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Camarillo. All programs are led by instructors trained to work with cancer survivors. Participants receive one-on-one sessions to determine individual capabilities and set goals. Exercise routines focus on building muscle and bone strength, and improving cardiovascular endurance. Flexibility and coordination regimens are key, because a lot of cancer survivors experience neuropathy that affects their sense of balance.

Marmelzat estimates more than 400 cancer survivors have benefited from Livestrong at the Y programs throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, including 40 in the Valley.

“We’ve had people as young as mid-20s and we’ve had two people in their 90s,” she said. “A big part of it is the support — talking with people who’ve had the same cancer you’ve had.”

After implementing nearly a dozen Livestrong sessions since its inception in 2013, YMCA staff have worked with a variety of cancer survivors.

“I’d say women with breast cancer have been the most prevalent,” Marmelzat reported. “But we’ve had lung cancer, lymphoma, throat cancer, leukemia [survivors].”

Marmelzat conducts most of the intake interviews with participants and their spouses. She said it’s interesting to meet cancer survivors and hear their personal stories.

“I have had the privilege of talking to them about their cancers and their goals,” she said. “I think the most amazing thing is people come in and they’re so positive and appreciative — and grateful.”

One of the most important aspects of the program is reducing stress and fear in cancer survivors.

“It helps with the emotional stress they’ve been through to be in a place where the focus … instead of sickness … is health,” said Marmelzat, who encourages cancer survivors to learn more about upcoming Livestrong at the Y sessions in Santa Ynez and Lompoc.

“The program has been very successful,” she said. “I feel we have helped cancer survivors and their families get back to normal, or somewhat normal. I think the Y, in general, is just a great place to find support, both physically and mentally.”

The executive director of the Stuart C. Gildred Family YMCA agrees.

“We’re always trying to help people reach their goals,” Speidel said. “We just want to give people an opportunity to get connected with the Y and have positive opportunities.”

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