Dr. Sharon Cowden Helps Breast Cancer Survivors to Recover their Strength

Dr. Sharon Cowden is an accomplished physician. After graduating Baldwin High School in 1967, she went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in Medical Technology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, as well as a Bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Chatham College, and attended medical school at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Cowden's explains, "I started my career as a medical technologist working in microbiology labs in several local hospitals. While working in the lab, I decided what I really wanted to do was be a physician. I went into pediatrics because I enjoy being with children. I appreciate the love, joy, and resilience they have." Her background in medical technology serves her well, as much of her work relates to infectious diseases. Dr. Cowden appreciates the long-term relationships she can form with her patients. She shares, "I love caring for a child from birth through 18–20 years, being part of their family. Few careers give this type of personal satisfaction."

In 2002, Dr. Cowden went from doctor to patient when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After successful treatment of her cancer, Dr. Cowden began the process of recovery. She encountered problems with upper body strength and mobility that prompted her to reach out to a personal trainer. She worked with Janette Poppenberg, who is an ACSM/ACS certified Cancer Exercise Trainer. Dr. Cowden recalls, "I led a very busy life as a wife, mother, and pediatrician. I am also an avid golfer. Through stretching exercises and light weight-training I was able to regain my strength and return to my life before cancer."

Dr. Cowden was grateful for the assistance she'd received from Poppenberg and was aware that working with a personal trainer was not something every woman could do when recovering from breast cancer. She explains, "at the time there were very few resources for rehabilitation. Wishing to make this available to all survivors, my personal trainer and I decided to make a video with the exercises needed and aerobic exercise guidelines." Through their efforts, Strength and Courage was born. Cowden and Poppenberg spent 5 years raising funds and planning. They enlisted help from Dr. Kathryn Schmitz who mentored them through the process and Janet Smith who produced the DVD. Strength and Courage is a workout DVD that uses aerobic and strength training to specifically address the needs of women recovering from breast cancer.

Officially launched in 2008, the program has helped countless women. Dr. Cowden notes, "it has literally gone from garage to global." Over the last ten years, women in every state in the U.S. and in 33 countries have used the program. Through a partnership with the Magee-Womens Foundation, the program is available to women in Southwestern Pennsylvania free of change. The University of Miami contacted Cowden and Poppenberg with a desire to make Strength and Courage available in a Spanish-language version, Fuerza & Valentía.

While much attention is given to treatment of breast cancer, many people don't understand how involved the recovery process can be. Dr. Cowden explains, "All survivors should be given adequate rehabilitation resources after treatment just as is done after cardiac surgery. Also, aerobic activity is a very important part of recovery. Recurrence of breast cancer often occurs. Aerobic activity can prevent this. I am now an avid exerciser and have been cancer-free for 16 years. This year I took 1st place in my age group as a survivor in the Pittsburgh Race for the Cure. Staying active will help survivors heal physically and emotionally."

Pink Ribbons abound in October. Dr. Cowden notes, "October focuses on breast cancer awareness. This means not only the importance of screening but also in reducing risks through diet, exercise, and limited alcohol consumption." She encourages everyone to support the cancer community through personal screening and commitment to exercise and staying active. "Promote these areas within your own family and group of friends," Cowden says.

For more information on Strength & Courage, visit their website: http://www.strengthandcourage.net/