Cancer survivors benefit from drumming and Tai Chi classes

It’s hard to miss Rod Wilbur during the weekly drumming and Tai Chi classes held at McLaren Greater Lansing for the benefit of cancer survivors.

Typically dressed in a black or blue t-shirt, blue jeans, and blue athletic shoes, the stocky, 77-year old resident of Eaton Rapids is usually near the front of the room during the sessions, often engaging in good-natured banter with the instructors, or making light-hearted comments followed by a laugh.

You might not picture Wilbur as someone who would be a disciple of drumming and Tai Chi as ways to get fit, but he says the classes have played a major role in “completely turning around” his life.

He credits them with helping to transform him from someone who -- following chemotherapy treatments -- frequently needed a cane to walk, to someone who now moves confidently up and downstairs. He feels so good these days that he figures he has “another 25 years” left in him.

“I’m an all-together different person now than I was then,” he said. “I didn’t want to get up in the morning back then, and when I did get up, I didn’t want to do anything. Now I like getting up in the morning, and look forward to doing more than I did the day before.”

Wilbur, who lost part of his left lung to cancer in 2013, usually attends the classes with his wife Kay. He was a pastry chef at the University Club at Michigan State University when he was diagnosed with lung cancer after checking himself into the emergency room at Eaton Rapids Medical Center because he was feeling short of breath and feared he was suffering a heart attack.

The chemotherapy that followed surgery to remove a tumor left him weak and fatigued, and suffering from a loss of taste and appetite. He credits his turnaround to the continual fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, becoming closer to the “God of my understanding,” and taking part in the classes at McLaren Greater Lansing that began with drumming in 2014 and Tai Chi in 2015.

Wilbur will tell you the slow movements used in Tai Chi might not look strenuous, but they have helped to strengthen his muscles and improve his balance. In addition, he credits drumming with improving his mental sharpness, coordination and health.

Tai Chi began as a martial art, but its main use today is as a form of exercise that helps to improve people’s aerobic capacity, muscle strength, energy, stamina, flexibility, balance and agility. Proponents say it is also helps to lower blood pressure, improve the health of one’s heart, and reduce inflammation.

In addition to all those benefits, Tai Chi has been credited with helping people to reduce tension and anxiety, create a sense of connectedness with others, and focus on the present, which can lessen the stress caused by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Wilbur would have viewed Tai Chi, which includes movements with names such as “The Archer,” “Golden Rooster,” and “Bone Marrow Washing,” as new-age mumbo jumbo before his cancer diagnosis. But he now believes strongly in its benefits. He talks excitedly about an aura that envelopes him during class, and adds there’s “something out there greater than us.” That there is an “electrical part of us that Tai Chi helps tap into.”

Debbie Windsand has taught Tai Chi at McLaren Greater Lansing since the class began in 2015. She sees her sessions as a way of connecting cancer survivors’ “mind, body, and spirit” by focusing on movements, posture and alignment, relaxation, and breathing. Her goal is to help them regain their physical, emotional and psychological strength so they have hope and “feel good about their bodies again.”

While Windsand incorporates meditative-type music into her Tai Chi classes, drumming instructor Patty Voss plays upbeat, pop music during her sessions.

Voss’ classes are designed to get people moving and incorporate aerobic components into them. But they also exercise both hemispheres of the brain via drumming patterns that involve both sides of the body and start out simple before becoming more complex.

“The drumming is very good at helping people develop their range of motion with their upper body,” Voss said. “But it also works on their memory and concentration.”

That’s by design, as cancer patients can emerge from chemotherapy treatments with what is often referred to as “chemo brain.”

Known in medical terms as chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment (CRCI), the condition can last for six months or longer, and make it difficult to concentrate, multi-task, find the right word, or learn a new skill. It can also lead to forgetfulness.

“You don’t know you have it, but others notice,” said Agatha Snoep, an 81-year old Lansing resident and breast cancer survivor who has participated in the drumming and Tai Chi classes at McLaren Greater Lansing since 2015. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments after her cancer surgery, and remembers times when people brought up something they had discussed, and she “could not recall what they were talking about.”

Windsand and Voss each teach other classes in the area, but they’re particularly fond of the groups they teach at McLaren Greater Lansing because they’re comprised of cancer survivors and co-survivors, those people who cared for someone with cancer.

Voss says it’s a “wonderful idea” to have a person, whether it’s a spouse or a best friend, take part in a class with the person they supported through thick and thin. And Jackie Holsclaw would agree with her. The 71-year old Lansing resident is a bladder cancer survivor who began taking drumming and Tai Chi classes at McLaren Greater Lansing with her older sister, Valdean Levy, in 2016. She enjoys participating in the classes year-round, but misses her “buddy” when Levy lives outside the state six months a year.

“It’s so nice to have someone in the class who went through the ups and downs with you.” Holsclaw said. “It’s a fun way to thank them for being there for you and doing so much for you.”

Michele Loree, an oncology social worker at McLaren Greater Lansing since 2006, started the Cancer Survivors Fitness Program in 2014 with grant support from the McLaren Greater Lansing Foundation. The program began with a weekly drumming class, with Tai Chi added as a component the following year. She founded the program because she “wanted to create something that was open and accessible to all cancer survivors.”

She is pleased about the benefits participants get from the classes that are free to attend because of grant funding from the Foundation. However, she would love to expand the offerings in the future.

Loree, like her colleagues at McLaren Greater Lansing, always has patients’ well-being in mind, and wants to give cancer survivors such as Wilbur, Snoep, and Holsclaw numerous ways to overcome the physical, mental, and emotional challenges they are faced with after undergoing surgery and treatments.

“They have been through so much,” she said. “It’s an honor to support them in regaining some normalcy in their lives.”

To learn more about oncology support resources at McLaren Greater Lansing, please call 517-975-7814, email, or go here.

If you would like to learn more about the McLaren Greater Lansing Foundation, or support the Cancer Survivors Fitness Program at McLaren Greater Lansing, please call 517-975-7100, email, or visit