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Debra Hughes: Co-Founder of Strength For Life

Strength For Life offers free exercise classes and wellness retreats to those with a cancer diagnosis. Whether participants are in treatment, in remission, or just starting their battle, Strength For Life provides a community of support that keeps them physically and emotionally strong. Learn more about their inspiring work here!

What inspired you to start Strength For Life?

I used to work with a woman named Evelyn Knapp, who was an exercise physiologist and one of the healthiest people I knew. She was diagnosed with cancer at 38 and made it her mission to stay healthy throughout her journey. Evelyn wanted to bring the power of exercise to other cancer patients, but unfortunately lost her battle before she was able to do so. My friend Jacqui and I decided to make her vision a reality in her honor. We got specialized as cancer exercise specialists, which really wasn’t a field that existed back then. We started speaking in cancer support groups about the benefits of exercise and learned that many people were so financially drained from the cost treatment that they couldn’t think about paying for an exercise class. We became a nonprofit in 2007 and started offering free exercise classes to any and all patients, survivors, and thrivers. 

Can you tell me about the people you work with? 

It doesn’t matter to us if you have been in remission for 30 years or if you were just diagnosed last month— everyone is welcome in the Strength For Life family. You don’t have to be in active treatment for there to be a need for support. Once you have a diagnosis, there is PTSD that always lingers. Cancer doesn’t discriminate and neither do we, so attendees are men and women of various ages who have all kinds of cancers. Some haven’t started treatment yet and are trying to get as strong as possible for it, and some are recovering from treatment and trying to rebuild their strength. Through exercise, we’re helping to give people a sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation. 

What does a Strength For Life class entail?

We have 12 locations, because we never want people to have to travel more than 10 minutes to get to a class. There are anywhere from 5-15 men and women in each class, which are an hour long. We do warm ups, various lower and upper body exercises to keep the lymphatic system moving, and cool downs. There is a magic that happens where our classes organically turn into support groups. When you put a group of people together who have all been through a similar experience, they build an amazing community. The people in our classes are getting strong, doing something good for their bodies, and empowering each other in the process. Outside of our classes, we also have four weekend wellness retreats per year that are about holistic wellness and alternative methods of care. 

What is the best part of your job? 

Strength for Life and my own life are one in the same. I love recruiting new people to join us in class because I’ve seen for myself how beneficial it is for people. We really are a family. When you are surrounded by people who are going through one of the hardest things imaginable, it allows you to see the beauty in life. Being surrounded by that kind of inspiration is such a beautiful thing. I’m grateful that we’ve been able to fulfill Evelyn’s vision, and it’s transformed into something bigger than I could have ever imagined. 


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