Exercise for Peace of Mind

Nancy Brennan Waterskiing During Cancer Treatment

Waterskiing in Chemo Summer

Forget for a minute that exercise is good for you and good for your health. Forget for a minute that if you are a cancer patient, exercise may likely help your cancer treatment be better tolerated and more effective, and that it may even help your long-term recovery in significant ways. Forget that exercise can boost your immune system, help your body fight inflammatory cellular processes in ways that are “anti-cancer”, and forget that exercise can mitigate side effects like nausea, fatigue and low mood.

Bear with me, and forget that exercise is being haled as the “wonder drug” by British medical experts in a recent report. Nevermind that many cancer treatment centers are formally starting to help cancer patients exercise in oncology rehab or other physical therapy programs. Forget that the American College of Sports Medicine’s expert panel, in 2010, emphasized to onocologists that patients should: “Avoid inacitivity.”

Let’s look beyond the medical benefits of exercise for a moment. Even those benefits are supremely important, let’s think about something else: that exercise can be restorative, peaceful, joyful and fun for you—even during cancer treatment. Exercise and cancer treatment go together like a hot summer day and a cool lake to swim in, or like a beautiful outdoor breeze and a long walk. Let’s talk about how exercise can help your peace of mind and steel you to be courageous, hopeful and optimistic as you fight cancer.

I was asked once: “what was the worst part of having cancer?” I didn’t know where to start. If you have cancer or have had cancer, you know your own private list of sorrows, suffering, fears, and changed realities. I don’t need to tell you cancer sucks. However, the best part of the cancer challenge, for me, was that I found out how much exercise could help me cope in the moment. Being active made me handle it the best that I could. Day by day, I found a sanctuary where I had some measure of control over how I felt, some luck finding a time where I felt “like myself”, some bodily pleasure instead of pain, and some fun instead of terror. I also found some smiles, sweat, and a sense that I was strong enough to endure and get beyond cancer.

Your doctor, unless you are very lucky, is not likely to understand all the ways that exercise, such as a slow, short walk, with your arms swinging and heartrate up a little, can help you get through cancer with your spirit strengthened, not weakened. Your doctors may care enormously about your blood counts, your chemo cocktails, your treatment options, and your prognosis. They are trying their best to save your life. It really isn’t their place to try to save your soul, your sanity, your hope, your state of mind, and your ability to cope. You have to admit it: you are in charge of how you handle your cancer challenge. Exercise can be the missing tool to help you “keep it together” the best that you can mentally and emotionally. This isn’t measurable, but it is truly marvelous when exercise helps you cope.

When I went walking or for a swim, I felt some peace. I tried to draw strength from the movements. I listened to and looked at the beauty of the nature around me. I tapped into the power of life. When I was out walking, I felt my heart beating, and I applauded it for its strength. When I walked up hills, I felt my legs power and appreciated them. Breathing deeply, I felt the power of my lungs. I felt alive, not half-scared and half-scarred. Just alive.

Exercise was there for me. Even if I was tired, a bit anemic, or concerned about some nasty “side effects du jour.” As long as I was exercising safely, I partook. Slowing down, easing up, not going far or fast: Any exercise period of 15 minutes or more seemed to re-set the day’s mood. A little aerobic exercise, some yoga, or some strengthening exercise knit me back together with better resolve, a better mood, and a better quality of life. Even if exercise was neutral in terms of how it affected your disease outcome, I would tell everyone to exercise a little bit if they were a cancer patient, just to help themselves get through the ordeal in better mental –and physical—shape.

But, bonus! Exercise can positively affect what the professionals call “your disease outcome”—and what you may call “your life.” While the medical professionals are ramping up to accommodate cancer patients who need to exercise, don’t let their technical expertise make you lose sight of the lovely way that exercise can soothe your soul during a crisis and keep you emotionally strong. Come on. Take a walk. Go get some air, for all the reasons the doctors want you to exercise and for all the extra reasons that also count: You’ll feel better if you do.

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