Program aims to help cancer survivors reclaim health and well-being

By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

Lisa Chartier endured three rounds of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and experimental CAR-T cell therapy after a Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis in January of 2017. The cancer returned three times, finally leaving her in remission six months ago. Eighty pounds lighter and very weak, Chartier, encouraged by a Dye Clay YMCA member, joined the support program for adult cancer survivors known as LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA in August 2019 to begin her wellness path. 

“I had a lot of family and friends supporting me, but to be in a group with other cancer survivors all in different places and with different types of cancer — people who know what you have been through, know what you are thinking and what you are feeling — it really helps a lot,” said Chartier, a mother of four. “They get it.” 

Now the Ponte Vedra YMCA plans to launch the same national program this spring, said Charlie Chacos, Ponte Vedra and Nocatee Y District Executive Director. Chacos said that fundraising is underway to reach the $12,000 goal to begin the program at the Ponte Vedra Y and donations are currently being accepted in person at the Ponte Vedra Y branch or online. So far, $4,000 has been raised, he said. 

“I want to bring this signature program to the Ponte Vedra Y because I feel strongly about it. Everyone knows someone who is or has been impacted by cancer. Cancer does not discriminate, and it affects everyone,” said Chacos. “Causes like these are the reason why we raise dollars, and you can see how the money has a direct impact on our community members.” 

LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA is an evidence-based program that helps adult cancer survivors reclaim their health and well-being following a cancer diagnosis. It is a 12-week program with 12 people in a cohort, said Marla McGill, Director of Association Health Intervention Programs at the First Coast YMCA. McGill said that it costs $12,000 to get the first cohort started, and a cancer diagnosis and medical clearance are the only requirements to qualify for the program. The first cohort began at the Brooks YMCA last year in May. 

“You can be at any place in your cancer journey and still participate,” said McGill, noting that Y personal trainers take special courses to lead a cohort with emotional, physical and social needs in mind. 

Participants get a free membership during the program along with their family members, so that support is felt both at the Y and at home. Once the 12 weeks is over, participants are offered financial assistance to continue their membership, said McGill. 

Ponte Vedra YMCA and LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA Trainer Michael Reed said that he feels so passionate about the program that he would do it for free. 

“When you are a trainer, you get to see the results of what a human being can become and how magnificent we can be,” said Reed, a 25-year cancer survivor. “When you have been diagnosed with cancer, you become a cancer survivor.” 

Reed, a personal trainer for 42 years, worked on the first LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA initiative at the Brooks YMCA and cannot wait to serve the Ponte Vedra YMCA members. He said the program begins with a meet and greet and then a personal assessment. 

“It is such a wonderful thing to see them progress not just as survivors but to become warriors,” said Reed, adding that the bonding between participants is also crucial to the success of the program. “Everyone becomes a personal trainer for each other. It is a lovely environment that we create.” 

Ponte Vedra Y board member and fundraising chair Laura Cowie said she wholeheartedly believes in the LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program because experiencing cancer can be extremely isolating and can put a tremendous amount of emotional and financial stress on the diagnosed individuals and their families. 

“LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA is an incredible program that can help form a cocoon of caring through classes, personal training and invaluable support groups. The statistics of cancer are staggering, affecting one in two women and one in three men. Most all of our lives have been touched by cancer in one way or another,” said Cowie. “The best part about the 12-week program is that the $1,000 cost is covered entirely from our fundraising efforts and is free to those individuals and their immediate family.” 

Cowie asked that the community let friends and family know about the program, and, if a person is able, make a tax-deductible donation to the Ponte Vedra Y to help support the community and a life changing program. 

The link to give online is All inquiries for survivors and donors may also go to Also, Chacos said community members should feel free to call him directly with any questions at (904) 543-9622, ext. 104 or email him at 

Photo courtesy YMCA of Florida’s First Coast

Group fitness class