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The CT Challenge Center for Survivorship in Southport focuses on life after cancer diagnosis and treatment

When the Center for Survivorship in Southport celebrates its first anniversary this October 1, the post-cancer clinic will have seen more than 400 survivors and family members step through the doors—in its first six months alone—and 175 survivors sign up for its subsidized exercise, nutrition and support classes, groups and services.

The center is the only facility dedicated to cancer survivors in the state, though the need is abundantly clear. “There are 14 million cancer survivors in the U.S. today,” says founder and Fairfield native Jeff Keith. “That number is going to 20 million and there’s not a lot of aftercare for cancer survivors. That’s where we come in.”

Located in an industrial building that once housed a radiology practice, the newly renovated, 8,000-square-foot space at the edge of Southport Village is light, airy, clean and green. Toxic-free, sustainable materials, like the bamboo floors in the yoga studios, were used wherever possible. The spanking-new equipment includes twenty cool, yellow-and-black Matrix stationary bikes in the cycling studio, and gleaming weights, machines and two flat-screen TVs in the exercise room; four certified cancer fitness trainers are available for group and individual sessions. Classes on preparing nutritious meals are taught in a spare, spotless, modern kitchen. There are also locker rooms, a library and a conference room.

The idea for the Center for Survivorship came three years ago to Keith, who is something of a national warrior-hero in the fight against cancer. Diagnosed at twelve with osteogenic sarcoma, he lost his right leg above the knee to the disease and underwent eighteen months of chemotherapy at Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston. “There is never a day when I do not think about the children who received chemotherapy alongside me,” he said. “Most of those kids didn’t make it. I owe it to those kids.”

A natural athlete, the loss didn’t stop Keith from becoming captain of the ski team at Fairfield Prep, from which he graduated in 1980, and an NCAA Lacrosse goalie at Boston College. His philanthropic career began soon after graduation: He became the first amputee to run across the United States, raising over $1 million for the American Cancer Society, then launched the CT Challenge, Swim Across America and Swim Across the Sound. In 2010, after eighteen years in investment banking in New York, he devoted himself full-time to serving survivors.

The Center, he says, was “a culmination of looking back at what helped me live life as a healthy survivor.” Nutrition and exercise—he cofounded the hugely successful CT Challenge bicycling charity nine years ago—were critical, he realized, to his personal journey through the disease. He also began looking at other diseases and how they were treated.

“I realized that if you have a heart attack, insurance pays for ten days of cardiac rehab, which is basically exercise and meeting with a nutritionist,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing that for cancer survivors?’ This wasn’t a novel idea, but when you think about it, exercise and nutrition and support aren’t novel, either. What is unique is focusing them on survivors, and I’m more convinced today than I was three years ago that there is a need for this.”

And yet the Center for Survivorship isn’t about illness. As Keith notes, “This went from a building that treated cancer patients with radiation to one that now gives them wellness and hope.” In addition, the Center offers companionship and understanding for fellow survivors.

David Tisdale, fifty-seven, an interior designer from Fairfield, was diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago and heard about the Center while undergoing chemotherapy. “Friends and family members who haven’t gone through it are sympathetic, and empathetic, but they really don’t know what you’re going through,” says Tisdale. “So to be able to come to a place where you don’t even have to talk about it, you can just know that everybody there is dealing with an issue that’s similar to yours, is really refreshing.”

Cancer-free two years out from surgery, he takes yoga classes at the Center and is part of a “talk and walk” group that meets on Thursday mornings. Following coffee and free talk, members walk as a group to Southport Harbor. “Even in the winter when it’s freezing cold, it’s just nice to get outside,” Tisdale says. “Outside, you’re really not thinking about all of the issues effecting your life.”

In the same way that cancer survivors need support, Keith relied on the generous support of sponsors and volunteers to realize his vision.

Westport architect David Preusch waved his fees. Russ Shif of Waverly Construction in Shelton, and interior designer Jackie Richardson of Portmeirion in Southport, provided their services at greatly reduced fees, as did many of the sub-contractors who worked on the renovation. Oliver Nurseries, on Bronson Road in town, donated the wetland plantings in the meditation garden and stream between the building and the Metro North railroad tracks. Keith also expresses gratitude to corporate sponsors for their generous support. Mitch McManus and the CT Challenge team at BMW of Bridgeport, for example, raised $75,000 for the Center last year and aim to raise $100,000 this year.

The Center for Survivorship is open six days a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Private training sessions are by appointment any day, at any time.

In addition, videos and other educational content are available online at ctchallenge.org; to date, viewers from forty-nine U.S. states and forty countries have logged onto the site. Also there can be found testamonials from the many survivors the Center has helped.

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