Breast cancer survivor finds community and strength in MUSC Hollings Survivors' Fit Club

June 30, 2021
MUSC Hollings’ Survivors’ Fit Club member Joann Baldwin poses for a photo during a workout session.
MUSC Hollings’ Survivors’ Fit Club member Joann Baldwin was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in her right breast. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

It’s a hot and humid June day in downtown Charleston as Joann Baldwin, 68, greets her friends at the MUSC Urban Farm to learn about what is growing and the health benefits the plants offer.

This isn’t something she’d do on her own, but she’s here as part of the Survivors’ Fit Club offered by MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and the MUSC Wellness Center. Baldwin, a Pennsylvania native who now calls South Carolina home, has found community and a new purpose, thanks in part to the Survivor’s Fit Club, which is a 10-week program that builds community among breast cancer survivors while also improving their physical health, mental health and diet.  

She likes it so much that this is her second time participating. Baldwin, a retired teacher, taught special education and the deaf and hard of hearing for 36 years. These days, she finds herself teaching women about the importance of regular mammograms, something she’s been having annually since she was 32, after her mother died at age 54 of metastatic breast cancer.

In September 2016, her routine mammogram detected something that no one can truly prepare for — she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in her right breast.

“I had no symptoms and always did manual examinations of myself. I had a normal mammogram in March 2016.”

Although it was an aggressive form of cancer, Baldwin said that catching it early was critical. She had a mastectomy and two months of chemotherapy at a community hospital near where she grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Throughout the process, she felt like she was lacking a community of survivors to help her to live her best life following the cancer diagnosis. That was, of course, until she came down to visit her son in Charleston during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was one of those people who lived in the same state all my life. Coming to South Carolina and not having a job, and not having all my friends and siblings, it was hard for me, and I was a really outgoing person,” she said.

During one visit, Baldwin made an appointment at MUSC to continue her routine checkups following the cancer diagnosis. She was scheduled to meet with Frank Brescia, M.D., a breast cancer oncologist at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. The initial visits were so positive that Baldwin transferred her medical care to the team at Hollings.

It was Brescia who told Baldwin about Survivors’ Fit Club in the fall. She said she finally felt like she had found the community she was looking for.

MUSC Hollings’ Survivors’ Fit Club member Joann Baldwin punches a heavy bag during a training session. 
MUSC Hollings’ Survivors’ Fit Club member Joann Baldwin punches a heavy bag during a recent training session. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

"I really had a hard time in Pennsylvania finding a cohesive support group," Baldwin said. "They had some options, but to me, it was not what I needed. I wanted more information about health, diet and what is new."

June is National Cancer Survivor Month, and Baldwin, like so many people, struggled after her treatment ended. She said building community, seeking help to address mental health and realizing you’re not alone in your struggles are keys to cancer survivorship. Hollings offers other resources, like the Survivors’ Fit Club, to help those struggling after a cancer diagnosis.

“I really formed a connection with the women here,” Baldwin said. “The women are what makes it all happen. I think the exercise programs and activities are excellent.”

The retired educator is now thrilled to be learning about things she didn’t pay much attention to before and enjoys the weekly activities that range from diet tips to yoga and ballet classes.

“I feel strong,” she said. “I just want to be with people. That is what makes me feel strong.”

Survivors’ Fit Club gives her something to look forward to each week. Since moving to South Carolina, Baldwin said she’s found a church and enjoys exploring the area as well. She said what gives her the most joy these days is spending time with her only son and her 1-year-old grandson.

“I know that what I need to do now is be strong in a different way and really connect with other women and people in South Carolina,” Baldwin said. “I really want to start a new life after teaching. I want to volunteer at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, and I am getting involved in serving meals for the homeless. I want to do more volunteer work.”

Baldwin said she has been inspired by the strength of the other women in Survivors’ Fit Club. She is grateful for an outlet like the group and is enjoying the small things in life even more following her diagnosis.

“I’m lucky. I do feel like I have a second chance in life.”

For more information about Survivors’ Fit Club and upcoming sessions, please call 843-792-4141.