You may not have met Anne Marie Collingwood, but if you’ve attended the BRIGHT Run in recent years, you know her.

And if you’re a breast cancer survivor, you need to know about the ENCORE program that Anne Marie coordinates at Hamilton’s YWCA.

For the past eight years on event day, Anne Marie has been on stage with a clutch of other brightly dressed women, leading BRIGHT Run participants in a pre-walk/run warm-up. It’s a date she wouldn’t miss.

“It is an absolute thrill and privilege for us to give what we love to do,” Anne Marie said. “What I love the best is the ENCORE graduates who come up on that stage in front of everyone. They are the brave ones to relinquish fears and seize the electrifying energy regardless of the weather, that is shared with and from our BRIGHT family. We are the blessed ones to share in this very important event!”

The rest of the year, Anne Marie coordinates the YWCA’s ENCORE, a gentle exercise program for those who have had breast cancer. It’s an exercise program, but it’s so much more.

The eight-week course, which is free, introduces gentle post-surgery exercises on land and in the pool that increase range of motion, relieve tightness in the chest and strengthen the back.

In addition to the exercise portion of the program, there are relevant guest speakers on topics such as lymphedema, stress release, supportive nutrition, as well as community related outings.

“Most importantly, the women connect and find a group of women with whom they can share their experiences, information and feelings,” Anne Marie said. “The program meets a critical need for women who have been through breast cancer and their feedback drives us to continue to raise funds to meet those needs.”

The YWCA’s spring ENCORE session runs May 8 to June 26, from 1.30 to 3.30 p.m. on Wednesdays. To nab one of the limited spaces, contact Anne Marie at [email protected]. The YWCA also offers Pilates Beyond Breast Cancer and Aqua Beyond Breast Cancer classes. Contact Anne Marie for information about those programs too.

Anne Marie took a somewhat circuitous route to the ENCORE program. During her career in the criminal justice system, she exercised at the YWCA to release stress. She eventually left that career and went into health and fitness on a part-time basis.

In November 2006, Anne Marie was diagnosed with breast cancer. That December, she had three rounds of surgery, including a mastectomy. In the midst of all this, her mother-in-law had a fatal heart attack.

“If someone would have told me what I was about to face during that month, I would have never thought I could make it through,” she said. “For me, holding onto my faith in God and the love and strength of my family and friends, as well my full confidence in my surgeon, Dr. Nicole Hodgson, got me through to the other side and a new year.”

During her treatment at the Juravinski Cancer Centre, Anne Marie had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Halifax radiation oncologist Dr. Rob Rutledge about the importance of exercise in cancer recovery.

In questioning Dr. Rutledge about appropriate exercises for breast cancer survivors, Anne Marie learned there was an ENCORE program offered at the Halifax YWCA. She and her Y colleagues took up the challenge to bring the program to Hamilton, launching ENCORE in January 2009.

“We have been so incredibly inspired and blessed by the women we have been privileged to share this program with,” she said. “We look forward to every session we are able to run.”

Anne Marie has been involved with the BRIGHT Run in some way for years. But in 2016, her husband Brad died suddenly at 54.

“He was an enormous support to me throughout my breast cancer, even through the death of his mother in the middle of all of my surgeries,” she said. “He would always be behind the scenes assisting and supporting me whenever I needed him.”

She has fond memories of Brad and their daughter Caitlin in the BRIGHT Run crowd, supporting the warm-up team’s efforts. But the year he passed away, she found it difficult to be involved in the event.

“However, as the days led up to it, I thought of all the kindness and generosity of the BRIGHT committee towards us,” Anne Marie said. “I went to help with the warm-up and I was received with such care and support.

“That is the BRIGHT family,” she said. “And that is what makes it such a special event that must be experienced.”