Health studio for cancer survivors offers recovery options

As a mother with a young son and a busy professional life, Wendy Rahn’s life turned upside down when she received her breast cancer diagnosis in 2006.

Rahn said she was depressed all the time after her surgery, but found comfort after reading that exercise would increase her chances of survival.

where to go

Survivors Studio
what: Cancer survivors fitness studio
where: 3596 Linden Ave., White Bear Lake
For more information, Call (651) 748-4760 or go to

“The only time I was happy was when I was working out,” she said.

Rahn found her own path to recovery and decided she needed to share it with others.

Rahn, a University political science associate professor on single-semester leave, opened a fitness studio for female cancer survivors Feb. 7 in White Bear Lake.

The 1,500-square-foot studio doesn’t have large machines for lifting, but instead focuses on exercises such as yoga, pilates and Nia – movement to music to stimulate the body and mind.

The Survivors’ Studio is based on research, which has been available since 2005, concluding exercise’s ability to increase women’s survival chances after treatment by up to 50 percent, Rahn said.

She said she has spread the new research through her non-profit organization, Survivors’ Training, since last summer, but didn’t feel that was enough. When the opportunity to lease the studio presented itself late last year, she jumped on it.

Rahn said she thinks it’s the first program of its kind.

University marketing manager Kelly Culhane is a cancer survivor and member of Rahn’s studio. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 38 years old in June 2007, but has since completed her treatment, she said.

“When you have to face your own mortality like that, at such a young age, it’s almost like going to war,” she said.

Culhane learned of Rahn’s studio when she was posting information about her nonprofit and cancer research in a hospital.

Culhane said she has found solace attending the studio twice a week since it opened.

“I kind of look at it like medicine,” she said.

Each member of the studio has battled cancer, but their experiences are all different, including diverse treatments in women ranging from a newly diagnosed patient to a 17-year survivor.

Because of their shared experiences, there is no apprehension about stigmas on hair loss, weight gain, mastectomies or other side-effects of cancer and its treatments, Culhane said.

She said relationships form quickly at the studio because members support one another and can talk about subjects they may not feel comfortable discussing with others.

“It’s the relationships that are the cement around which everything is glued,” Rahn said.

Class sizes range from one-on-one sessions with personal trainers to six-person groups.

Rahn said it’s a nice change of pace for the women who are used to a hospital environment.

“It’s about living, getting stronger and being happy,” Rahn said. “It’s the antithesis of being in a hospital.”

Cathy Skinner, a personal trainer for the studio, said workout sessions are tailored individually for each member. She said the sessions allow her to create unique relationships with clients because she asks for their feedback and engages the women.

Michelle Holmes, who authored the 2005 research highlighting the benefits of exercise, said it’s difficult to say exactly why exercise makes such a difference for women battling cancer.

She said working out lowers hormone levels that can play a major role in cancer development, improves self-esteem and leads to weight loss, among many other positive effects.

Holmes said exercise shouldn’t replace primary cancer treatments, but her study found that moderate exercise is enough to give women an edge. However, excessive exercise doesn’t necessarily correlate to better chances of survival, she said.

Lee Jones, a cancer researcher at Duke University, surveyed oncologists’ opinions on prescribing exercise to their patients. He said most find the idea of their patients exercising favorable, but don’t always recommend it.

Jones said not many oncologists know all the benefits of exercise, and the amount of research on the subject is relatively small compared to other cancer treatments.

“My view on that is they really shouldn’t be doing that,” Jones said. “Oncologists should be sticking to what they know.”

Without many doctors actively encouraging their patients to adopt a workout routine, Rahn said she has found herself as one of the few advocates of the practice and tries to utilize her studio as much as possible.

“This studio was her dream,” Culhane said. “She wants everyone on board.”