In 2016, the beginning of what would ultimately become Strength For Life Abilene started as a pilot program under the umbrella FitSTEPS for Life®, a foundation housed at gym on S. 7th Street in Abilene with a goal of creating a workout program for past and present cancer patients. That program grew substantially and from it was born Strength For Life Abilene.
Strength For Life Abilene was founded by the current owners of FireHouse Fitness gym, Josh and Andi Rader, and Stephanie Phelps, a cancer survivor, former teacher and the current Executive Director and personal trainer of the Strength For Life program.
The program has one main goal: to provide a free exercise program for cancer patients here in Abilene and the surrounding counties. It doesn’t matter if they are in remission or currently being treated, the program is offered at no cost to all cancer patients for life.
“Cancer can take such a toll financially on folks,” Phelps said. “Especially if you don’t have a history of cancer and weren’t expecting it and you don’t have any type of insurance to help with that. So, we just kind of wanted to build that bridge of ‘Hey, we’re here to help you. We know you want to be more physically active to help your body get stronger.’”
The vision for Strength For Life is one of hope. The founders of this program ultimately have the goal for all participants to have the resources they need to be healthy for the rest of their lives.
Phelps had started working with Josh during her own cancer treatment, and it made such a difference with her both physically and mentally, that they wanted to offer something that would bring hope and healing to those in our area who need this gift.
One of the benefits of going to Strength For Life Abilene is that Phelps tailors the workouts individually to meet each participant’s unique needs.
“Patients need a referral from a doctor for me, and that’s all they need to get started. Once I get that referral, I schedule an initial visit, and they come here. We talk about their medical history and their cancer journey, and then we also talk about their long-term and short-term fitness goals,” Phelps said. “We talk about what they want to work on – maybe it’s balance or maybe they want to work on better mobility – and then I come up with a program just for them.”
Brochures with the referral form are currently in both major cancer centers here, Hendrick Healthy System and Texas Oncology.
Exercise is an essential aspect for cancer patient’s treatment and healing, Phelps said.
“Exercise has been shown through research to be a very powerful drug when dealing with cancer. It not only helps a patient to feel better, but it also helps with chemotherapy, for the chemotherapy to get to the tumor quicker. When you’re exercising, you’re releasing endorphins and chemicals that help that chemo to get through to your body. It also helps you to sweat out all those toxins quicker.”
Jennifer Barnard is a participant of Strength For Life who has seen these positive results from the program.
“I saw an 80 percent reduction in my tumor after four rounds of chemo,” Barnard said. “When I started having neuropathy in my hands and feet during chemo, I started walking more at Strength for Life and saw a great reduction in this side effect.”
It’s more than just the physical aspects of the program that keep Barnard coming back.
“One of the best parts about Strength for Life is the friendships I have made. It’s not every day that someone so young gets cancer. It can feel really lonely at times, like no one understands. There is a sense of family at SFL with instant connections and always smiling, welcoming faces,” she said.
Brenda Conley has been a member of the program since the very beginning and said, “SFL is a great safe environment to be in. I love getting to know other survivors and their stories. Stephanie is an absolute jewel!”
This community program is currently servicing more than 100 participants and will be likely adding another personal trainer soon. Strength For Life has grown so much that they now have their own space located at 8050 Buffalo Gap Road.
The program is open to all current cancer patients and survivors.
“We don’t discriminate against what type of cancer you had, what stage it was, how long ago you had it. You could have had it ten years ago, and you can still be a part of our program. Currently our youngest [participant] is 33 and our oldest is 89,” Phelps said.
There will be a fundraising event on Sept. 5 downtown at The Well Church which will feature a magician, with donations going to update and add to the gym’s equipment. For more information on this event and the Strength For Life program you can check out their Facebook page – facebook.com/strengthforlifeabilene
Strength for Life in Abilene
By Vikki Head
Photography by Beth Dukes