Kelley Watson, 50, Oak Parker and mother of two, had just quit teaching pilates at a downtown health club in 2009 when she got the diagnosis: Ductal Carcinoma in Situ. Cells in both breasts’ milk-ducts had a 30 percent chance of developing into invasive breast cancer. It was a wakeup call that her job had been too stressful, she says.

She went through 33 radiation treatments, a lumpectomy and seven core-needle biopsies, she says. “As a result, I experienced nerve damage and cannot get health insurance.”

“I had a partial mastectomy and never had reconstruction. I would be going into a gym feeling deformed, and I’d have these people looking at me.”

So, when Watson heard about a special pilates instructor training program for breast cancer patients she immediately signed on. The Pink Ribbon Program teaches pilates instructors how to help patients and survivors exercise in specific ways that rebuild muscle and give confidence after surgery or treatment. Watson teaches the special routines to individuals and small groups in her Pilates by Kelley studio at 7515 Madison St.

“Kelley and I have been working together since shortly after my diagnosis and recovery from breast cancer,” said K.C. Poulos, a client. “It helped me regain a sense of balance and ownership over my new body and stay flexible and limber after surgery. She’s a really great instructor and she understands the importance of recovery.”

Poulos had a radical mastectomy after being diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She underwent a full year of chemotherapy and then reconstructive surgery. “This pilates program is different than a regular exercise program which can be too aggressive and too strenuous. You can’t keep up with the class and you feel bad for yourself,” said Poulos.

Watson helps her students who have had skin or fat transferred from their abdomen, back or gluteus muscles in reconstructive surgery. The special program helps patients who have mobility problems resulting from side effects from cancer treatments, such as lymphedema, a swelling of the lymph nodes.

Pilates is a special series of exercises based on a study of human physiology and often focusing on “core” muscles in the abdomen. Pilates uses small props like weights, balls, circles, bands and balance cushions and larger equipment such as the “Reformer” a full-body weight machine with springs.

Watson says there’s a gap when people finish cancer treatment. “They give you a pamphlet and you’re expected to go on with your life.” She says pilates and other exercise programs help patients rebuild confidence and strength as they’re readjusting to post-cancer life.

“I’d go back to it in a minute,” said Poulos, who says she’s even dropped her health club membership for financial reasons. “Unfortunately, pilates is one of the most expensive forms of exercise because of all of the one-on-one attention. But it’s one of the most accessible forms for people going through chemo or recovery.” Poulos wishes groups like the Susan G. Komen Foundation would subsidize pilates therapy. “I know not everyone could afford this. There are [organizations] who can help and they should. “

Watson says she is frustrated that pilates is not covered under health insurance and not able to be prescribed by doctors, like physical therapy. She charges roughly $1 per minute for her classes, although she gives discounts to small groups. Watson volunteers at Gilda’s Club in Chicago, a free cancer resource for men, women and children. She’s also partnering with Avon to give discounted classes for anyone (patient or not) who’s participating in the Avon 3-day cancer walk this summer. She also teaches regular pilates.

Even though she’s working part-time and making less money, Watson says she’s much more enthusiastic about her work and it has deep meaning for her. “Before I was teaching [pilates] for vanity. Now it’s life-saving,” she says.

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...