MY REFUGE: EXERCISE AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY DURING CANCER TREATMENT
A PE flunky, I was always chosen last for any school athletic team. Encumbered by thick glasses I’d worn since first grade, I was more likely to be hit by a ball than to catch one.
During elementary school, I watched wistfully as my sister shimmied across monkey bars, laughing with delight while I remained firmly anchored on the ground, silently jealous of her supple dexterity. A few years later, I lobbed the badminton birdie into the rafters during a sixth-grade class and wanted to hide behind the bleachers because the boy I’d been paired with was so cute. In high school, I nearly shot the PE teacher with an arrow during archery instruction while allowing the giant standing target a wide berth.
As if I hadn’t gotten the message, I decided to compete on the track team partly because my friend was a talented runner and it seemed like something fun we could do together. I failed to consider the burden of pronated, flat feet. No one with feet like mine should attempt to run distance in track. I came in last at every meet. Needless to say, any notion of becoming a competitive athlete dissolved quickly.
Moving into adulthood, I valued health and wanted to mature gracefully. Exercise must be part of the plan, especially because I work in a desk job where I sit for hours every day. By the time I was diagnosed with cancer at age 52, I’d long held a gym membership and regularly attended boot camp, spin and body works classes. A titanium implant in my ankle reduced the chronic pain of the hopelessly flat foot. Although I lacked coordination and flexibility, I loved the natural high that followed a good work-out. Although it may surprise many of my school mates, I was actually in decent shape when cancer came calling.
In the days following my first diagnosis, I was hurled into the cancer staging process, which involved a dizzying schedule of biopsies and scans. One afternoon I underwent a complex lymph node biopsy. I expected a laidback fine needle procedure but instead encountered a hyper-serious doctor who swooped in with a tool that resembled a dental drill.
Using MRI imaging as a guide, she aimed for quality samples with precision. With the entry point lodged just above my rib cage, I felt as though a tunnel was being drilled into my core. This is when I knew I had crossed over into new territory. I was now a cancer patient.
After the biopsy, I couldn’t shrug off the agitation. By then the gym was a standard in my coping repertoire, so I decided to mosey over to boot camp, toting an ice pack under my arm. The instructor, Robby, changed up the routine to focus on legs so I wouldn’t strain the bandaged area on my side. Only a few hours before, I was drowning in the new reality of cancer. The comforting routine of squats and walking lunges calmed shards of anxiety and reinforced that I still had a normal life. That evening’s class established a pairing of exercise with cancer coping that continues to this day.
As a palate cleanse for the mind, physical activity firmly anchored me in the present moment. When I worked up a sweat, I put cancer in its place. Pedaling furiously in spin class, I had a few choice words for the unwelcome visitor (“screw you” and “f*** off” among others) and the focus helped me beat back the chorus of fear that sought to dominate my mind. In the midst of a heart-pumping workout, there is no room for anxiety to get a word in edgewise. The body and mind are aligned in the here and now, keeping pace until the end of the song or routine. Exercise offered a haven where I couldn’t hear anxiety clamoring.
It became my safe place.
Early on in treatment, I had no idea how I would hold up during chemo but resolved to continue my gym routine until I couldn’t manage it anymore. Although I took off weekends while rebounding from AC (Red Devil) chemo, I was surprised that it wasn’t too difficult to keep going. I attended boot camp and spin classes all the way through 16 rounds of chemo and 33 rounds of radiation. As long as I showed up for the gym, I didn’t feel like a cancer patient. I felt HEALTHY, even if the scans suggested otherwise. As the months passed, I concluded that feeling healthy conferred a powerful message of wellness which I hoped would support my immune system in the quest to beat back an aggressive disease.
Discovering a refuge with exercise gave me courage when I’d have to face another scan or when the Red Devil chemo poured through my veins. During boot camp class, Robby was fond of saying that, “you can do anything for two minutes” as he assigned us spiderman push-ups or other moves that demanded the ability to persevere. I applied that concept to intense medical procedures, telling myself that, “you can do hard things.”
Although exercise is a well-established natural anti-depressant and anti-anxiety agent, it seems the hardest part is getting started. I remind myself that even if I don’t always enjoy it at the moment, the reward comes with feeling good at the end. Some years ago, Julia Cameron wrote a book in which she advised aspiring writers not to sit around waiting for inspiration to strike but rather to commit themselves to writing several pages a day. I decided to take a similar approach to exercise, even if I couldn’t make it to the gym. As long as I was moving, I was doing something healthy as my body attempted to heal from the onslaught of malignancy. Any physical activity was better than nothing.
Once lymphedema came along, it forced adjustments to my routines. Conventional wisdom holds that the muscle should be fatigued in order to add mass. Not so with lymphedema. Overdoing it, even a tiny bit, has the potential to blow up my arm and put me in bandaging for months. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Too much pressure on my arms, from planks or push-ups, creates an unpleasant sensation of cording, something akin to the lymphatic channels hardening into solid tubes under the surface. Radiation fibrosis has reduced the range of motion in my shoulder and no amount of stretching ameliorates the damage. Although limitations are frustrating, this is the price I pay to stay alive. And it is worth it because I am chasing health, not perfection.
By the time of my second diagnosis, we were well into the COVID pandemic and the gym became too risky given my immune-compromised status and danger of infection. Even after the worst of COVID passed, I was stuck in the immune-compromised basement. Leaving the gym left a massive void, but my sisters identified online workout programs that I could do at home. I discovered Supernatural, in the Meta Virtual Reality. Now I am one of the people wearing an odd-looking headset and waving my arms around as I smash virtual targets. I have loads of fun with workouts that pack a punch and deliver results. Exercising made me feel strong and gave me the confidence to believe I would prevail in the fight against cancer. Chemo, surgery, and radiation saved my life – no question about it. And the exhilaration delivered by exercise carried me through some hard moments, giving me courage to persevere with treatment, no matter how daunting. Although I can no longer manage my pre-cancer routines, I value the ability to remain active. It remains my refuge in the midst of cancer treatment and its challenges.