Author Archives: activeagstcancer

Sometimes I Remember

When I was in chemotherapy treatment, eleven summers ago, my oncologist liked to try to cheer me up by saying something like this: “Some day, years from now, you will look back and not really remember most of this. It will seem like it wasn’t even real, and you will forget about it.”

I appreciated the intention, but honestly, I didn’t believe him. I was in the midst of the weirdest medical melodrama called “chemo” and I was alternately anxious, worried, and terrified. I was able to handle the pain. What I didn’t like was the uncertainty and weirdness. I thought, when he said I would forget the ordeal, that he was wrong: Not me, I thought, I will always remember all of this in great detail.

However, he knew better than I did. He was right: I did forget. Most of the time, if I happen to think about having had cancer at all, it does seem unreal. It does seem like it couldn’t be true. It does seem like it happened to someone else. I have, in other words, not only re-gained my health and kept cancer-free eleven years, but I have also outlived the trauma.

I don’t worry about recurrence. I don’t feel any difference between who I am now and who I might have been without the cancer-at-age-48 terror. Cancer survivorship doesn’t define me. I wrote a book about cancer recovery, but now I find even that book a little hard to relate to as my own.

Recently, however, I had a week where my own cancer history came back to mind. I recalled it more vividly than I had in many years. Why? Someone whose background I could relate to was diagnosed with cancer–and I found myself remembering the weird time when I went from being super healthy and fit to being a cancer patient.

We all like to think that our choices, like good lifestyle, good nutrition, and good amounts of exercise, will protect us from cancer–and they do, statistically. But even the best lifestyle choices don’t guarantee that cancer will skip by you. Sometimes it picks you, and there may officially be no reason why. You did nothing wrong. You did almost everything right. There is no reason. As an old friend of mine once said, sometimes in life, you have to admit “Why not me?” is about as much logic as you can find in a bad circumstance. “Why not me?”

And there you have the path towards letting go of the “Why me?” when the answer doesn’t appear available. You let go of wondering why it happened, and you just start dealing with it, day by day, bit by bit. You look for how to cope. How to conquer. How to prevail. You look for allies. For tools. For good nutrition, good rest, and good amounts of exercise. You ask for help with pesky side effects; you take the pain and the indignities. You go bald and develop a sense of humor about bald jokes. You get humble; you stay proud. You hang on to close friends, and you learn to enjoy the other members of Club Survivorship, even though it’s a lousy club to be selected for. You DEAL with it.

Because, as my dad once said of his chemotherapy course, what choice do you have?

It turns out both my oncologist and I were right. I did forget, and I did move on, but when something triggers me to remember, I do remember being a cancer patient. It was strange and terrible, but it did not go on forever, and I do not remember most of the more gruesome details any more. The pain has been erased from mind.

I wish all the other cancer patients hope, strength and a full glorious recovery. Keep your eye on re-gaining your health. We’re pulling for you.

Peace,
Nancy

 

A Lap As Caregiver

This past winter, I took a lap around the track as a Caregiver. Not for a cancer patient, but for my husband who shattered his tibia in a skiing accident. And not literally a lap around the track, but hundreds (it seemed) of laps up and down the stairs of the house. It was, overall, a humbling but rewarding time. I learned what it was like to be helping someone who couldn’t keep up with normal activities. I learned things that many caregivers to cancer patients will already recognize. Here are a few highlights.

Pacing. Pacing yourself is key, when you are thrust into doing more than you are used to doing. Winter chores in Vermont include driveway snow removal, stoking the woodstove, bringing in the wood to the house, and mitigating the ice on the driveway, when it appears. When I became the only fully mobile person at our house for a couple of months, those were my jobs, as was cooking, cleaning, shopping and getting rid of trash. Everything could get done, every day, along with taking care of my husband’s care, but I had to really pace myself. It was like an endurance event. I counseled myself: “Don’t go so hard that you can’t get up and do it all again the next day.”

Sometimes it takes a Team. I literally couldn’t do everything that needed to get done some days. We had a few neighbors and friends who pitched in with help with the wood carrying or other things. When I got the flu (!), my husband found a local high scholl baseball team that sent volunteers to the house to help shovel out from a late April snowstorm. Brilliant!

Stay Upbeat. Staying positive was a surprisingly natural reaction to seeing how badly injured my husband was. I became a cheerful caregiver and kept up a good attitude. I am often a real worrier, but I felt so protective of him that I wanted to keep his spirits up by giving him confidence. Now, I’m not perfect at this, and sometimes my worries overflowed a little bit, but I did my best. We picked funny TV shows to binge watch late and night, and we kept his (and my) spirits up through a difficult time.

Celebrate the Little Stuff. There’s nothing quite like a major illness or severe injury to make you realize how good you had it all along. “Boy, it sure was nice when I could walk.” In the next instant, though, you might also realize that you still have it pretty good. My husband and I celebrated the little stuff like sharing good meals, spending extra time together, being able to see healing advancing, and trying to find the humor in the whole medical adventure. It occurred to us often to say: “Well, it could have been worse” and mean it. There was still a lot to celebrate, and doing so kept us appreciating every day, despite the limitations.

Overall, I liked caregiving. I could have done without getting the flu, but overall, I liked my turn at caregiving. It was interesting to find that it wasn’t actually overwhelming, even though it was very demanding and tiring. The main goal was helping my husband heal and it was good to know that I was making a big difference every day in his healing. And, it was good to take a turn in the Caregiver role. But I won’t mind having his help with snow removal and woodstove filling next year!

 

 

Still Active Here…

September 12, 2017

The summer of 2017 included water-skiing every weekend, and I progressed my form a lot from this photo through to late summer. Hips up!

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It continues to be a great joy to be physically active and strong. I celebrated 10 years post-ovarian cancer last April, and it was humbling and not without a few tears.

My book, Active Against Cancer, still continues to be available on Amazon, and people keep finding it useful, which is heartening, but also sometimes sad.

In the last couple of years, as I near 60 years old, more friends have had their struggles with cancer, and not each of the struggles end the way we would like. I quietly grieve, when needed, and I am deeply humbled.

I lost a dear friend to cancer this past year, and I find I can still not write about it at length. Maybe as time goes on, I’ll find the right words. He was a champion of optimism and strength.

Wishing you each health, long life, and happy trails. And if the trail turns out to be challenging and difficult, wishing you outer support, inner courage and a heart full of love.

Peace,
Nancy

 

Spring in Stowe: Weekend of Hope 2016

In Vermont, the daffodils are patiently waiting for the snow to stop falling and the migrating songbirds are keeping their distance, generally, until some warmer weather returns. But, based on the thawed dirt backroads (aka mud season) and the maple sap running, it’s spring in Vermont again–and that means Hope, the Stowe Weekend of Hope, more exactly.

This year’s Stowe Weekend of Hope is April 29 to May 1, and you can find all the details at www.stowehope.org. This year, a busy schedule with my own business kept me from scheduling my usual “Walk and Talk” on the Stowe Rec Path, Friday morning. Sorry! But I want to give a shout-out to loyal attendees: I’m fine, and I’ll miss seeing you there!

Hey: I’ve got an idea, if anyone is around, take each other for a walk by meeting at 10 a.m. behind the big white church in Stowe, and amble away on the Stowe Rec Path, talking with each other about your cancer recovery and your plans for the weekend of hope.

Hope. It’s the best choice that I made when I was in cancer treatment. I was scared, really scared, but I put my trust in the power of the medical treatment, the power of a positive attitude, and the power of a holistic approach to self-care and complementary care during my treatment. I included acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine and counseling. And I included my daily dose of exercise.

And I followed my doctors’ treatment plans, although I admit I was a questioning and highly involved patient. (Okay, maybe I was even confrontational and a pain-in-the-neck at times, but I had read that patients of that ilk survived longer, so… sorry, I was going to ask all the questions I had.)

The best hours of my cancer treatment period (about 6 months of chemotherapy, post-surgery) were ones when I could forget that I was bald (yes!) and forget that I was sapped of my usual strength. I found enough strength to swim–or proto-swim, really just float. I found enough energy to walk outdoors and enjoy the fresh air and birds. I found enough energy to yell “hit it” which for a water-skier means “get going with that boat and let me ski along the lake surface like magic!”

Exercise, even a 10-minute walk, renewed my hope every time. I felt alive. I could sense the suffering, but it didn’t seem so bad if I could still move.

I remember reading about a cancer patient who visualized dancing, when too weak to dance. Did this raise her immune system function? I have to think so.

I found that I didn’t hope in proportion to my “percentage chance of recurrence”. I hoped wildly and thoroughly, every day, to get past cancer recovery into good health again. I leaned on other people’s hope, too. My husband was certain I would recover completely. Okay, let’s go with that hope.

There were sometimes doubters: I ignored them. “I don’t believe in being ‘realistic’.” I said. “I believe in optimism.”

Optimism is comforting. It’s encouraging. It rallies your will to eat those extra vegetables or nourish your yearning for a trip to the ocean to see the waves. Hope makes you walk another quarter of a mile to keep your heart strong. Hope makes you want to take every step with joy. The future is ahead, but in the present, there is always room for hope and for joy and for gratitude. The choice is ours.

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I’m quietly celebrating 9 years of cancer-free survival this April, while watching a few dear ones in the midst of their own cancer challenges. I’m humbled by their grace and I’m ever grateful for my own good luck.

I wish you all a good weekend of Hope, and every day, thereafter, as much hope as you can embrace. I may even make it over to the Stowe Rec Path Friday morning myself. Just informally, but that’s okay. I’ll be the one with the binoculars, looking for birds! Please say hello if you see me.

Peace and love,
Nancy

P.S. In looking at the Stowe Weekend of Hope schedule, participants interested in movement, exercise and healing may be interested in the all-day Friday workshop, described this way: Enjoy!

Hope and Wellness Through Movement for the Mind and Body
LOCATION: STOWEFLAKE RESORT – Room: Atrium
David Dorfman, Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer, Cancer Fitness Coach, and Other Instructors. All levels and abilities welcome!

  • 9:00 am — Full-Day Session Begins with Welcome and Overview

Join us for a full day of healing activities including yoga, meditation, biking, and much more! Pick what’s right for you and join us for our Weekend of Hope exercise program. All levels and abilities welcome!

 

 

The Time of Forgetting, The Time of Remembering

I kept my wig. I kept it, at first, because I didn’t know if I would need again. Then, after some time, I kept it hoping that I would never need it again and thinking maybe that was realistic. Some time later, I kept it because it seemed like “good luck” to keep it.

I wanted to humble in the face of the threat of cancer. I didn’t want to toy with the threat of cancer recurrence. I wanted to bow to it, humbly, and run hard in the other direction as soon as it wasn’t looking.

I kept my wig in a hat box. A pretty hat box. I kept it in sight for a while, but now it’s in the closet. I took photos of my hair growing in: white and straight, then curly as Shirley Temple, then longer and more like my “real” hair.

I’m going gray–or maybe white. I won’t be coloring my hair. I’ll be celebrating. I’m lucky — to have hair, to be here, to keep going. To be past 8 years post-treatment, 8 1/2 years post-diagnosis. I expect another cancer free birthday in 10 days. I’ll be 57. I’ll be lucky.

Cancer does seem like it was a dream now. A nightmarish dream with lots of love in it. Suffering surrounded by love; fear surrounded by hope; appreciation surrounded by worry. It was a lot. It was not all awful. I was so happy to be alive. So very happy just to be alive.

That was the feeling that I wanted to preserve, but it is hard to preserve it when things get more routine. Now is the time of casually forgetting all that cancer meant to my life. Now is also the time when it’s important to look back, on purpose, and remember.

Because one thing is true for almost every cancer survivor that I know: Your priorities become very very clear. Get healthy. Enjoy living. Love. Be kind. Do good work. Make the most of it.

I went for a foliage walk today. I’ve been working too hard on a project for several years. For several years, I have been making excuses too often for not taking time for myself, for joy, for exercise, for renewal. I think I’ll change now. It’s time to remember that life is journey, and it’s not meant to be just for work.

I remember when I am out in nature. I remember how I healed and what I wanted: to live. To live fully.

Blessings, all. Peace,

Nancy

Walking for Hope in Stowe, May First

The Stowe Weekend of Hope begins on May first this year, and that’s when I’ll lead my “nearly annual” Walk and Talk for cancer survivors. May first is a holiday in many cultures. In my twenties, I used to dance at May pole dances with contradancing friends to celebrate the beginning of summer on May first, in the Celtic tradition. It was a time of merriment and anticipating spring.

As I write this, my Vermont home is still deeply enveloped by winter’s cold and snow. I was thinking how cancer survivorship has its own peculiar seasons. Although each person’s “weather” may differ, there are seasons that present challenges that seem never-ending, and there can be seasons of renewal and rebirth such as in a recovery that changes us from who we were to someone new.

My own seasons of cancer and cancer recovery seem to include the Season of Strong Coping, when I faced treatment with a courage that now seems, from a distance of eight years, rather surprising. Was I really that strong? I think when cornered by a health challenge, like cancer, we find strength (physical, emotional and mental–and spiritual) that we didn’t know we had.

Then there was the Season of Simmering Anxiety. My treatment had gone very very well, but five years of quarterly testing my biomarkers was exhausting to me. And I also suffered something of a let-down of the previous robustness. Everything seemed difficult: including getting enough sleep and keeping up routine exercise, which I had previously loved and had no trouble with.

After seven years, there came the Season of Celebration: My doctors agreed that I was no longer in need of testing. To me, that was the moment of victory. I had escaped!

At times, now, as I am eight years away from diagnosis, it is hard to remember that the whole of my cancer journey was real. I hesitate to say that aloud because I know when I heard people say that when I was struggling, I somehow felt a weird type of jealousy. It wasn’t really jealousy perhaps. It was a desire to achieve that status some day myself, I guess. And now I have.

It is remarkable how much the body can heal. I try to remember never to assume what others are going through in their cancer journey. So many similarities between our stories can come up, but so can many differences. This year, when I lead the Walk and Talk, I will try to be especially mindful of the fear and suffering that many people have, at some level, during the early or difficult parts of their journey.

May we walk together in celebration of the springtime and find solace in the fresh air and each other’s company.

Peace and strength to you on your journey,

Nancy

Still Active

I celebrated my 7th anniversary of my cancer surgery recently, and I’m humbled to say that I’m still healthy after all this time. Time: It’s such a gift.

I celebrated this year by buying a charm bracelet with a charm for each year that I have enjoyed since cancer surgery in 2007. Luckily, Danforth pewter is a Vermont business and I was able to make my bracelet at a Danforth store, choosing meaningful charms such as clover leaf, for the luck of the surgery going well, and a heart for the next year, where I married my boyfriend while still having hair-style challenges from the chemo. Other charms commemorated life events, and the joy that goes with being a long-term survivor.

Then, I celebrated the 4th anniversary of my book’s publication by meeting with two very special people at the Stowe Weekend of Hope. One is a local reader of my book, whom I’ve met and been in touch with. She’s an active cancer patient who humbles me with her compliments for the book and how it helps her now. And the other new friend is a personal trainer who is certified to work with cancer patients, and who is able to use the book’s approach with her clients. Doubly humbling. She’s including a copy of my book in the take-home package for a workshop on recovery.

We three wandered around the fields and trails in Stowe last Friday, and the weather was “interesting”. It drizzled, it poured, the sun shone, the wind picked up, and then it rained again: all this change in not a very large amount of time. Of course, that weather reminded me of life: as John Prine wrote in a song: “You’re up one day, the next you’re down; it’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re going to drown.”

John Prine is a cancer survivor, too. And so was the woman behind the counter at the Danforth jewelry shop who made my bracelet with me. Cancer survivors are not hard to find. They’re everywhere. We’re everywhere. We have been given the gift of more time.

We walk in the rain and smile. We have chemo and we go out to feed the horses even though we’re tired. We teach others how to exercise with meaning and joy. We show up at our doctors’ offices and wish for something to make all the little indignities or chronic pain go away. We wait for spring, we listen for birds, and we keep moving, still humble, still remembering the day we came to consciousness post-surgery and they said, “it was cancer”, and we replied, “what do I do next? how can I heal?”

Peace and strength to all,
Nancy

Do you want to b

Kindred Connections, Vermont

Today, I’m preparing to be the keynote speaker tomorrow at the annual meeting for Kindred Connections, a Vermont-based organizations that connects cancer survivors with cancer patients for informal, friendly peer relationships. That’s a long way of saying that the organization helps people going through cancer treatment talk with someone who has cleared that hurdle, so to speak.

I’ll be speaking to the group about my experiences with cancer treatment and exercise, as well as my book and some of my “take-home” points about exercise. Here’s one of my themes: Do Something Often: A Little Exercise Every Day, On Purpose, is Very Valuable.

I often wonder if people think that exercise has to be very precisely programmed. I know that I wondered during chemotherapy if I had enough guidance about what to do or not to do. I was told by my physician to “do what you feel like doing”, with the caveat that he didn’t expect I would feel like doing very much after a while.

I had been a competitive cross-country ski racer, before Cancer, and I was used to running half-marathons, training by running mountain trails, and ski racing 32-mile races in mountainous terrain. After surgery for ovarian cancer and in the midst of arduous chemotherapy, I threw my usual fitness routines and fitness goals out the window. I adjusted everything so that my activity served the purpose of recovering from cancer and building health. Fitness and competition could take a hike; I slowed down.

But I didn’t stop. Instead of running, I walked. Instead of swimming far, I swam less far. I swam more slowly. When I was anemic, my walking including stopping and sitting on stonewalls to rest.  I only water-skied a little. (Smiley face here. Yes, I water-skied a little–slalom (ie, one ski). It was a high-point and I chose to do it on the days when I had the best blood counts–and I had asked the MD for clearance to do it.

My point is that I stayed active, but I didn’t try to keep training as if I wasn’t in the middle of chemo. I adjusted. And I tried to do something outdoors, moving, every day as much for pleasure and normalcy as for the health value. I never tried to exhaust myself.

I would recommend this approach to anyone. 1) Do a little as often as daily if you can. 2) Adjust so that you are pursuing health not fitness. 3) Ask your MD or other medical professionals if you have questions about your choices. Let them know your overall exercise plans. 4) Don’t exhaust yourself. 5) Enjoy it! Get outdoors, hear the birds, feel the sunshine, and give yourself the permission to know that a little is often as meaningful to your healing as a lot!

And, every once in a while, indulge in something special. I hiked up my favorite mountain mid-way through treatment. I took it very slowly. Very very slowly, but reaching the summit was so special. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Sometimes you have to feel like Cancer is not winning, you are, and that’s how I felt on the summit that day. I was winning! The memory kept me going when treatment got more difficult near the end.

This is what I will tell people tomorrow: Make your exercise plans meaningful for you and you are very likely to aid your healing on many levels: the levels you can measure and the levels you can not. Exercise has immeasurable value to offer your health. Enjoy.

Peace  and Strength,

Nancy

Active Against Cancer Books Headed Home with Patients

50 copies of my book will soon be going home with cancer patients in Vermont thanks to a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation and the efforts of volunteers and others at the Franklin County Kindred Connections organization. Personally, I’m humbly very happy to know that the book will reach people free of charge when they may most find it useful to them.

My book will be given to patients in “Care Bags”, described as “fifty handmade cloth bags filled with thoughtful and caring gifts will be given to newly diagnosed cancer survivors”. The gifts will be given through a collaboration of the Northwestern Medical Center, Crafty Ladies, and various Vermont businesses. Special thanks to Sherry R. for thinking of my book and contacting me.

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I haven’t written as much on this blog lately as other endeavors have had my attention, but the book keeps on selling on Amazon. There was also another recent article for which I was interviewed–I need to track that one down.

Interestingly, I have been surprised, but it’s true, I have finally reached the part of survival that my doctor used to predict that I would: Where it all starts to seem like a long ago memory, no longer a part of life that overshadows everything else. I remember that I did not believe him that I would ever get back to “normal”. I didn’t admit that, but I was sure that I would always be as terrified as I was immediately after treatment ended. I think part of me thought that to remain vigilant against cancer, I would have to remain scared of it.

Well, no. Life has resumed feeling… for lack of a better term somewhat “ordinary.” But I mean that in a good way.

If you’re in the thick of it and you feel a weird disbelief when someone tells you you’ll get through it, it’s okay. I can promise you this: you’re on your own path and your own timeframe and you’ll adjust as you need to, when you need to.

And… on the other hand: If you need help to find peace of mind, ask for help. You deserve it. And meanwhile, hope you’ll stay as active as you can and enjoy being alive. There’s a great opportunity in cancer survivorship to realize how much you love being alive. It’s cliche, I suppose, but it’s true–and it’s the only part of the whole experience I occasionally miss when normal tasks let me forget how special our time on earth really is.

Peace,

Nancy

Springing Ahead, 2013

The last twelve months of my six-year cancer survivorship have been a relief. I stopped having insomnia. At least most of the time, now, I can sleep most of the night. That is a huge relief. I stopped having to get checked up on at the oncologist’s office–at all–for twelve months. Which may, in fact, be why I started sleeping again. I stopped feeling exhausted and stressed out; I started exercising enough to lose the weight that the insomnia, exhaustion, anxiety and stress of post-chemo life had put on my frame.

I started to feel like myself, more or less, again. I stopped thinking so much about cancer. I started to just be another middle-aged woman wishing she was a little younger looking than she is. I started to feel like athletic competition might be in my future again. I started to just let all the worries go.

Of course, my book, being out there, has made it clear to the world that I’m a cancer survivor. And I’m always happy to chat with anyone about exercise and cancer recovery. But, unlike when I started writing the book, I think that there are more and more in the medical field who can help encourage cancer survivors to exercise. The trend is so clearly towards recognizing the benefits of exercise that I see the theme at cancer survivor events now. I think it’s nearly common knowledge, and that, friends, makes me very happy.

The best reason to exercise is to try to help save your own life. The second best reason might be because it’s fun and meaningful and helps your daily quality of life go way up. Okay. I know. That was more than one reason. I love exercise. I love being able to move my body through space. I love sports skills, time moving in the woods outdoors or in the lake water. I love feeling like a kid. I love competing (sometimes) and I love having fun.

This is just a rambling blog post to check in and say hello. I wish everyone much luck recovering their health. If you think that you might like to read about the many reasons exercise can help you fight cancer, or if you want some exercise ideas that aren’t confined to the gym, or you want some mind-body tips that can help you combine exercise with the power of the mind to help you heal, check out my book. You may want personalized advice from your medical team, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to read about how other cancer survivors handle their treatment and their exercise. Take a look, and drop me a note and tell me how you liked the book.

Peace to all,

Nancy

Running with Joy: Reframing Exercise for Emotional Healing

In my last blog, I promised to write about a specific technique that can help you reframe your exercise experience. Reframing is a borrowed term from psychology and it basically means shifting the context for the better. For example, saying, “I have an injured knee so I can’t run and that stinks!” That deflating way of looking at an injury can be reframed: “I have an injured knee, but I can walk and do strengthening exercises to further speed my recovery. I’m grateful that I can walk, even if I can’t run right now.” Yes, it’s a “glass half full” instead of “half emptry” approach, but oh, it does help you stay positive in the face of limitations.

So, now for the specific technique, which I developed spontaneously in 1992. That fall, I lost a really good friend to a car accident, and I was stricken with deep grief. My friend Martin, however, had been such a wonderful person that I was pretty determined to do something positive with my grieving process. For me, I made the decision to start ski racing (cross-country) so that I would have a lot of fun and some goals to meet that winter. It was instinctual, really. I just thought it would help–and it certainly did. But my first goal was to get moving and get in better shape.

Back injuries had kept me away from running for a while. I needed to start running, but I was pretty out of shape. I was doing okay, but I noticed that I called myself all sorts of negative things when I got breathless running. “Out of shape” is the only label I can share with you now. I just wasn’t being nice to myself. So, spontaneously, I stopped running and stood still, and said to myself, in my mind: I’m going to stand still until I start saying something nice to myself. I tried, “I’m getting in shape. I’m happy I can be here outdoors today. I’m lucky to be alive.” That sort of thing. I was pretty instantly cheered up.

And I started to run again, slowly. I felt a little lighter. The positive thoughts continued, briefly, then I started crabbing at myself again. I stopped, stood still, and forced myself to think of something positive. “I’m getting stronger. I’m in great shape to get stronger. I like running.” I started off, running again, trying to keep a positive thought train in my head. Eventually, all this stopping and starting led me to want to run along with a mantra or simple repetitive thought in my head. I don’t know, twenty years later, what those first mantras were, but I can tell you, I was a different person after switching my mentality, during training, from a harsh inner critic to a soothing, encouraging voice.

The sports psychology people call it “positive self-talk”. I don’t care what you call it, but if you are recovering from cancer and you are trying to do some exercise, I hope you will consider also training your mind to be kind to your body. You can applaud yourself for taking steps to be healthy. You can eliminate negative self-talk–by using my start/stop method or by using a positive mantra.

Eventually, I ski raced, that year. My results were not impressive on paper, but at every start line I said a little prayer that I could race with a good attitude of joy and gratitude at being alive and healthy. That attitude saw me through my grief and other obstacles in life. I sometimes had race goals that were secret at the time, such as to be the the most joyful racer or to have no negative thoughts all throughout the race. In a long ski race, that might be four hours or so, so you have plenty of time to either encourage or discourage yourself. I knew which I liked better.

To be honest, training with a positive attitude helped me not just go on to be a competent strong 50-km ski racer, or to run up mountains well, it helped me in my whole life. And it certainly helped me to thrive during cancer treatment. I’ll write more about my mantras during chemo in my next blog.

My advice? Start where you are and be nice to yourself. Don’t just exercise your body. Exercise your mind in a positive way at the same time, and you might get more than double the positive effects. Have your exercise hour become an hour of joy, an hour of renewal, an hour of peace. It might just become the favorite part of your day.

Peace, Nancy

Reframing Exercise: Finding the Sunshine in “Bad” Weather

I needed to walk the dog on this blustery, cool autumn day, and to be honest, I hesitated. I was wishing it was warmer outdoors. I live in Vermont and when I say “cool” I mean above freezing but not much so. There is snow on the mountaintop a couple of miles away. It’s chilly and cloudy, and by some accounts, the weather is lousy.

But, outdoors I went, wearing a windproof jacket over a fleece sweater. And a fleece hat. After a few minutes of walking, I noticed, that actually, it’s gorgeous outdoors. As someone more clever than me said: “There is no bad weather. Only bad clothes.”

The autumn leaves were blowing around and the wind was noisy. Some bright yellow aspen leaves danced on their branches in a spot of sunshine. My mind cleared, my heart pumped, and I felt glad that I went out for the short walk. My dog, we should mention, is always glad to walk.

What if we were more like our canine companions? What if we didn’t recognize “bad weather” as a deterrent? What if, instead of thinking of our exercise opportunities as “chores” or obligations, we relished them as time to be peaceful, joyful, or quiet the mind. Time to observe nature. Time to feel the sunshine or the rain. Time to stop rushing around in our cars, or surfing on the internet. We can find exercise to be time to heal. Left foot, right foot. Repeat.

The truth is that you can reframe your exercise goals any way you want to. You don’t have to use words like “training” or “workout”. You don’t need to compete in races or have goals to get faster. You can exercise for an hour a day as a meditation, as a path to inner peace, or as a way to feel joyous despite the day’s stresses.

I’ll write another post, next time, about a really specific way that I came up with years ago to help create a mood shift while you’re exercising.

For now, I will leave you with this thought: Exercise is not mechanical if you look at it broadly enough. Exercise can also be rich with meaning and with purposes like helping yourself heal or be happy. When you faced a hard disease like cancer, you can use exercise as time to heal and reconnect with your body in a nurturing time. You can set aside your suffering and try to find pleasure in your physicality. So, reframe exercise to suit your true self. Set your own goals and make them count for you!

Survivorship Is Always Evolving

I recently went to hear Shannon Miller, gold medal gymnast and now ovarian cancer survivor, speak at UVM where she was sponsored by Fletcher Allen and the Eleanor B. Daniels Fund. Shannon’s speech was uplifting because of her personal courage and optimism. She was genuine, open, and honest in talking about her experience coping with ovarian cancer, surgery, and treatment. Even though she saved her handstand for the next day on her visit with gymnasts, she radiated with her champion glow–something that her experience with cancer has not changed.

My husband appreciated her practical advice and optimism, as he listened in the audience with me. It seemed that Shannon is fighting cancer with a champion’s attitude, and she appears to be winning, as her health is good right now, over a year after treatment ended.

After the talk, though, a funny thing happened on the way back to my car. I was sad. I didn’t at first know why. I was just sad. In reflecting, I think there are two main reasons.

First, I really hate cancer. All I can say is that I wish that Shannon had not had cancer. She is so young, vibrant, and has a young family. I know in my mind that cancer doesn’t pick its victims in any way that is fair, but honestly, it kind of breaks my heart that she has had to deal with ovarian cancer.

Second, I am now five-year survivor of ovarian cancer. Her talk about diagnosis, the shock, the rigors of treatment, and the fears of recurrence brought back a lot of my worst memories of my own ordeal. I don’t dwell on them often in my day-to-day life any more. Hearing her account seemed to trigger some sadness in me. Tears came, then went. A passing grief. My own cancer survivorship, it seems, is still evolving. That was the first time in a long time I had felt such sorrow.

Shannon mentioned something I thought was important: She said she believed that you need to allow yourself to have your feelings. I believe that, too. Sometimes cancer experiences are frightening, sorrowful, painful, or even maddening on some levels. You can’t just check a box that says: I will always be happy and upbeat in the face of my cancer ordeal. Not going to happen. The toil and troubles of cancer are too rigorous. Everyone will feel sad, hurt, scared or angry at some point. You wouldn’t be human if cancer didn’t upset you.

But, like Shannon said, “When you fall, you get back up.” So, you can accept the so-called “negative” emotions as you feel them, but then you get on with your day. Maybe your day can include getting support or regaining your health by taking care of your body and of your emotions. Get counseling if you need an expert’s help.

Let someone close to you know of your pains, physical and emotional, and then, respond by getting up, moving on, and having a core belief in your ability to cope, your odds of healing, and your inner strength. Everyone has inner strength, with or without gold medals in your past.

A New Goal, A New Energy

My sporting life has definitely been divided into phases. I’ll name for of them and try not to be as boring as when I gave a friend a short history of all the running shorts I had owned. (Yes, really.)

1- Recreational athlete. All of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood until age 34 could be counted in this phase. I did what was fun to me, I tried to “stay in shape” and I avoided all but ten or so races. “I don’t like racing,” I said, though secretly wishing I did. I had many athlete friends who competed. I just trained with them. But, hey, it was fun. Really. Water skiing, rock climbing, swimming, running, bike touring, on and on. I did a lot. It was all fun. (I did “run track” in college, but that was mostly training, to be honest. Injuries kept me out of many races.)

2- Racing phase. I took up Nordic ski racing with a great deal of commitment after my best friend at the time passed away suddenly. He was a superb athlete. I started to race because “a little voice in my head” told me it would help. I trained daily and I went from last place race finishes to finishing with admired peers in the citizen races in the 1990s to early 2000s.

watchingncaaskiracing

Watching College Ski Racing is Always Fun

My favorite event was the 50-kim ski race. I loved loved loved marathon ski races. … And I threw in some running races, with quite a few half-marathons and some mountain road races like Mt. Washington. Generally the confidence, fitness and discipline gained from racing and year-round sensible training gave me a lot of joy.

3- The cancer phase. This included two years or so when I was trying to train and race as usual, but I had cancer that I didn’t know about. (Ovarian cancer is sneaky that way.) I felt lousy. Then I had life-saving surgery and chemo. Chemo, as you might know, though, can be a rough ride, and during 6 courses of carbo/Taxol, I had to make a lot of accommodations based on how I felt, anemia, etc. But I did have a lot of times during treatment where I could walk, hike, swim or water-ski. Just slower and less far than usual. It was still fun–especially compared to getting an infusion. I knew I benefited from that exercise and later did a ton of research and reading on why exercise helps cancer patients, which became the basis of my book.

chemochickgoeshiking

Anyone for a hike? Hair Optional.


Somewhat sadly, the comeback from the cancer phase was slow partly because of terrible insomnia that had started with the cancer ordeal. And then just when things were shaping up after two years or so, my recovery was punctuated with breaking my leg and mangling my knee ligaments in a skiing accident. Whoops. That took a lot out of me. But now…

4- Phase Four: Racing Again. Oh the power of goals. As a friend who is a stellar athlete shared with me once, “I have to have race dates on my calendar or I just won’t keep up with training well.” Well, that makes sense, now doesn’t it?

So, this week I put a race on my calendar for about 9 weeks from now. I’m nowhere near ready, but I will be when it comes around. It’s 4.5 miles up a mountain, the tallest in Vermont. A running race. That sounds fun, now doesn’t it? It does to me. They say you can gain back 80% of your fitness in 6 weeks. Or something like that. Let’s hope so. No matter what the race results will be, I’m already energized and I feel like I have some of my pre-cancer athletic confidence back already. Oh, the power of a goal. I recommend you set one for yourself. There’s really nothing like it.

Now, I have to go out and run. Yay.

Have a good day, and remember, if you are in cancer treatment, going for a little walk is better than not walking if you can do it safely. Just do what you can today to get a little exercise. Hope and exercise go together so well…
Peace,
Nancy

Reviewing Stowe Weekend of Hope

At the Stowe Weekend of Hope 2011

A few thoughts after the 2012 Stowe Weekend of Hope.

1 – On Friday morning, as the 3-day conference got going, a group of cancer survivors and I took a walk along the Stowe Rec Path. About 20 people braved the morning fog and mist to come along. They were a great group, and we walked for about an hour before we went indoors to our second location to do some more exercise and to talk more about the benefits of exercise to cancer survivors.

2 – I sometimes learn more than I teach. During the walk, I felt humbled by the strength and courage of the cancer survivors that I met. So many people have a great attitude for themselves about their challenge with the disease of cancer. I met people who were devoted to exercise, despite being in chemo or having other treatment-related challenges. I learned never to assume that people aren’t motivated enough to exercise: so many people have gotten the message that exercise helps them feel better and heal better. Wonderful.

3 – At the health fair, Saturday, I spoke to people about my book all day. I also listened and talked about how people were coping with their treatments and prognoses. Again, it’s more humbling than not. I appreciate people putting their trust in me when we speak. I also learned that “selling my book” isn’t entirely natural for me. I’m just not very slick.

4 – Five years is quite a bit of time. I’ve been a cancer survivor for five years. It isn’t very hard to remember what it was like to be bald, scared, treated with drugs and surgery, and living in the cancer “bubble” where normal life seems like it’s held at a distance. But it’s a little bit hard to remember all that–until I’m speaking with someone in the middle of it, and then it all comes back pretty clearly. And then, I hope to be someone who is a good cancer survivor who gives someone else hope.

5 – Our stories are all different. But at some level, our stories are all the same. Wishing you each peace on journey and strength on your path. – Nancy

April Anniversaries for Active Against Cancer

author_nancy_brennan_skiing_in_2007Today is a good day.

Today is the five-year anniversary of my cancer surgery and diagnosis. The photo on the right, of me skiing in the Vermont sap season in the April sun, is right before I knew I was sick. I knew I was tired, too tired, all the time, but until I sent myself to the ER, where they did a CT scan, I didn’t know how sick I was.

Please, if you have any “weird” symptoms, get medical attention. I thought that I would be laughed out of the ER for worrying about feeling something strange in my abdomen. Instead, I began to get the medical care that would save my life: surgery and chemotherapy.

Today is good day.

I have been free of any signs of cancer since treatment. I have tried to use these years wisely, to help others understand the many benefits of exercise to their cancer recovery. Medical doctors agree; researchers agree; the new guidelines from the American Cancer Society agree: exercise can help you heal as a cancer patient and survivor.

You need to do a rather small, but consistent, amount of exercise to gain benefits. If you’re in treatment, your exercise volume might be 15 min. a day and still make a difference. You don’t have to push hard, go fast, or be super-fit to do some meaningful exercise. If you can’t do aerobic activities like walking, you can perhaps do some yoga, stretching or light weight/strengthening work. Avoid doing nothing, if you can. Ask your medical team for advice, read my book, or get help from an exercise therapist. Remember,

Today is a good day to help yourself heal.

Taking Care During Cancer Treatment

Recently, I spent a few hours talking with a cancer patient who is a friend of a friend. She had seen my book, given to her by my friend, and I was happy to try to talk with her one on one. I’m not a medical professional or a physical therapist, so I wasn’t going to give any advice beyond my authority to give, but having researched cancer and exercise, I do have some perspective to share. Here are few thoughts I want to share.

Take It Easy: During cancer treatment, “pushing yourself” to exercise more strenuously, more intensely, or more often than feels right to you and “right for your body” is probably not the best choice. Prioritize: rest enough, and then do activity that is gentle and soothing. For some, it is difficult to believe that fifteen minutes of easy walking might be sufficient to boost their immune system. It is. Far better to err on the side of gentleness than tire yourself out.

Pamper Yourself: Next, approach exercise as a way to pamper your body and rest your mind. Try to enjoy it. Try to find some activity that feels like a relief from illness, treatment and your overall experience of facing cancer. Use it as an escape.

That approach might seem subtle or picky, and maybe I’m just weird, but I believe that your “body” isn’t really separate from your mind, and your “body” doesn’t want to be pushed. It’s already in crisis mode. It wants to be addressed with kindness, with gentle activity, with soothing music in the background as you stretch and lift a few hand weights. It wants you to sink in to your breathing and be there with awareness.

Exercise can be more than another item on a cancer patient’s to-do list. It can be a time of hope.

This next thought is just from my ongoing personal recovery from cancer.
 Remember to Address Your Psychosocial Needs: Here’s what I didn’t do enough of during my cancer recovery: I didn’t really get enough social support for my process. I thought that I did, but I didn’t. I didn’t join a support group. I didn’t know anyone with my type of cancer issues or spend time with similar survivors. I tried a few counseling sessions, but I dropped these after treatment ended. I should say: I thought I was taking care of myself by getting enough social help from friends and family, but looking back, I could have used more counseling, longer-term.

Obviously, I’m the type of person who might prefer to go for a walk in the woods rather than talk with counselor, but I know I would have slept better and resolved my anxiety and PTSD from my cancer experience better if I had sought out more professional help when the insomnia and other issues wouldn’t go away. And yes, being tired all the time for four years was bad for my exercise regimen and not a help to my health or happiness. I’m quietly celebrating that I have finally recovered, just shy of the 5-yr survivor anniversary.

My lesson to share is this: Even when treatment is over, don’t sell your mental health post-cancer needs short. Here’s how long I think it took me to get over the trauma, emotionally, of my cancer ordeal: Five years.  I also have heard it as a benchmark that other people cite. Cancer is a big deal. You don’t just skate away, especially depending on your specific situation.

Just be good to yourself, however you need to be, for as long as you need to be. Get help, when you need it.

Wishing you peace on your path,

Nancy

Lovely Endorsement from Shannon Miller

This past year, Shannon Miller, who runs a business named Shannon Miller Healthy Lifestyle, (aka SML) went public with her fight with cancer. Shannon, you may recall, is an Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics.

She is also a wife and mother now. Her ovarian cancer episode was, to many, shocking both because she is young and because she has such a healthy lifestyle. As I know only too well, myself, a healthy lifestyle does not eliminate all cancer risk.

Shannon bravely detailed her cancer challenge on her website’s blog. When Active Against Cancer, my book, was first out, USA Today newspaper ran a story about Shannon’s being in chemotherapy. I sent her the book immediately, and I hoped that it would help her feel encouraged.

Of course, I’m not saying that I had a lot to teach an Olympic gold medal gymnast about fitness (NOT!), but I thought that the words of experts who advocate for exercise during cancer treatment would be meaningful to her. I followed along, in her blog and in the media, as she went from chemo patient, to educator, to spokesperson for pro-active cancer survivors, and onward. Now, she’s a vibrant cancer survivor. I’ve rooted for her complete recovery.

She seems to be doing great! Chemo is over and there is no evidence of disease, according to her website updates. Shannon is using the whole episode to help others with their cancer challenges. Thank you, Shannon.

Recently, she made this lovely endorsement of Active Against Cancer on her website. She said, in part, “We think all cancer patients and survivors should have this book to share its knowledge [with] all. Many thanks to Nancy for sharing this book with us here at SML!”

Cancer makes it a small world, sometimes, or a big club. Let’s all root for health for 2012.

Peace,

Nancy

My Holiday Gift: Skiing Again

The day after Christmas, I received a holiday gift. I went cross-country skiing for the first time this winter. Ah, the loveliest of sports: Nordic skiing.

The winter has not been blessed with much snow where I live, so this was one of the first days for many avid skiers to get out on the skinny skis at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. We shared the trails with a variety of beginners, vacationers, and multi-generational groups. I saw intrepid skiers who might have been in their 80s or 90s, and toddlers being urged on by parents. I saw teenagers tolerating their slower parents, and adults encouraging their senior parents.

In the mix, I think I appeared to be just what I am: a slightly out-of-shape used-to-race middle-aged skier with great technique. I might have bristled at the label except for two reasons: 1) I’m a cancer survivor, so every day is a good day; and 2) I busted up my knee pretty badly in 2010 so this is actually the first winter that I can foresee getting in shape again.

I’m planning to race back into shape, which will involve some humility (timed results-wise) and some fun (everything else!).

Which reminds me of cancer. Sometimes your ego steps very far to the side. Cancer, for me, was one of the least-ego-restricted times of my life. Ego, which keeps up thinking we have a certain self-image to maintain, can not withstand being bald, having chemicals poured in through your chest’s new port, or having GI problems that you wouldn’t want to impose on anyone. Ego does not like having cancer and it does not like having cancer in public.

But, I found, once you get past the ego-blowing phase and settle into the ego-less phase, life can actually be pretty pleasant. Take the baldness thing. I like to swim. When I was bald from chemo, it was summertime. I would go to the lake late in the day, meet my husband, put on my little lycra skull-cap, and swim. After a relaxing swim (no pressure to swim fast!), I would switch into dry clothes and pop my wig on. Off to dinner. No wet hair! Bonus!

One day, I was making the transition from cap to wig when I got distracted by some little task. I was fumbling around by my car when I realized that people were staring at me, unusually. I took stock. I said, to my husband, laughing, “I forgot I was bald!”

Since my cancer ordeal nearly five years ago, I haven’t managed top fitness. I have battled insomnia and some GI troubles. I have battled post-cancer post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer-test anxiety. I have blown up my knee and had a knee surgery, with oodles of knee pain and disability. (Not as hard as cancer, I know, but it was pretty lousy.) I just have been off-my-game as an athlete. And my ego didn’t like that. Especially when my well-researched book on exercise and cancer recovery demanded that I start making public appearances. Where was my ski-racing toned self? Not available. I would have to manage on partial fitness. Sorry, ego. Best I could do.

I’m starting to sleep better lately. My knee is better. My anxiety about cancer recurrence is on low-to-no simmer on the back-most burner after 4.8 years. I’m aiming to be in roughly good shape in about ten weeks.

Cancer recovery is a years-long process for many. My two cents worth? Give yourself a break. Accept where you are. Protecting your ego isn’t as important as you might some days think. Ask for help if you need to; exercise with a tolerant friend, at whatever pace you can muster. Enjoy whatever fitness you can find.

It’s great to aim for optimal health and race-ready fitness, if that’s appropriate. But, sometimes we have to accept “pretty good” health and fitness. Just keep going. Keep going and do what you can.

It’s snowing today. I checked out the race schedules. I’m still a ski racer, at heart. It will take some time to be a pretty fast ski racer again, perhaps, but that’s okay. Lucky me. I’m 53. I’m healthy, and I’ve got some time. And my ego? Shrug. I have better things to do than worry about that.

By the way, it’s the holiday season, and I’m especially grateful for my health. I’m also thinking of those people who are facing cancer, now, holidays or not. I wish them well, and hope that they are finding strength and love. Best wishes to all.

Peace,
Nancy

10 Reasons to be Active in Cancer Recovery

One reason to stay physically active during cancer treatment is because it makes you feel better emotionally and physically.

In the book Active Against Cancer, you can learn more about the medical reasons that exercise helps you heal better from cancer. Being physically active may help you tolerate your cancer treatment better and may help you make a full and lasting recovery from cancer.

The reasons why exercise can help your cancer recovery are explained in easily understood language with medical accuracy. Here is a summary; the book provides further important details.

Five Reasons that Exercise Helps You Heal at a Cellular Level

1. Exercise creates an anti-inflammatory cellular environment, and this helps fight cancer.
2. Exercise boosts the activity of your immune system, and this helps fight cancer.
3. Exercise lowers your stress level and this helps to regulate chemicals like cortisol, which helps fight cancer.
4. Exercise helps to regulate levels of important sex hormones, and this can help fight certain cancers.
5. Exercise helps lower your fat burden in your body, and this can help your body fight cancer at the cellular level.


Five Reasons Exercise Helps Your Body’s Functioning as a Whole

6. Exercise improves your energy-level, reduces your sensations of fatigue, and helps improve your sense of well-being.
7. Exercise can help you sleep better and receive the therapeutic benefits of sleep.
8. Exercise encourages healthy eating helps, improves appetite, helps you to crave nutritious foods, and helps your digestive processes.
9. Exercise lifts mood which in turn helps promote healthy self-care choices, clear thinking, and reduces or avoids depression.
10. Exercise increases your fitness and strength, which can help your body fight illness and recover faster.

Bonus: Exercise is fun!

Profiled in Active Against Cancer Book

AAC Profiles: How Did Other People Stay Active During Cancer Recovery?

Ten cancer survivors who used exercise to help themselves fight against cancer are profiled in the book.

Need role models? Need inspiration? Each profile helps you understand real examples of how cancer survivors stayed motivated, stayed active, and displayed courage during their cancer recoveries.

The amount of exercise that they each did, the type, and the intensity vary, as do their ages and cancer types. What didn’t vary was their commitment to staying active in pursuit of a full recovery.

None of us facing a cancer challenge are really sure about our “outcomes.” The uncertainty can be maddening, frustrating, or frightening. What happens to someone else with your kind of cancer is not always what will happen to you.

But there is something that you can count on: If you are dedicated to doing the best you can to recover your health, then you can move forward without regrets. Get Active Against Cancer today.

Riding with Livestrong founder, Lance Armstrong, 2011

Here are some of the people who are profiled in the book.

  • A woman who was told to “get her affairs in order” after battling brain cancer, but who, many years later, in 2010, completed a run across the country from California to Florida in one summer. She is an advocate for healthy lifestyles and an author.
  • A man who lives with blood cancer, but who competes in running events including 24-hour run events–at age 69. His doctor applauds his running and healthy lifestyle.
  • A breast cancer survivor and mother who makes time for daily exercise and participated meaningfully in cancer fundraisers such as Romp to Stomp.
  • A former high school and college stand-out athlete, who underwent treatment for her cancer in high school, but whose determination to stay involved in sports and whose recovery made her college sports career possible. She is becoming an oncology nurse. She is also a TNT alum.
  • A woman who is a blood cancer survivor who uses yoga as a daily ritual and helps others in her community experience yoga therapy for the health and well-being.
  • A man who faced colon cancer treatment by including a devotion to exercising at his gym, and whose doctor applauded his activities and commended his ability to tolerate a complete, arduous course of treatment… and succeed.
  • A breast and ovarian cancer survivor who used activity during treatment, and who is a long-time survivor and founder of a foundation for cancer survivors.
  • An ovarian cancer and kidney disease (two transplants) survivor who used bike riding and other activities in her multiple comebacks, and raced in the Livestrong Challenge.
  • An ovarian cancer survivor who used hiking, walking, swimming and water-skiing during her five-month-long chemotherapy, and participated in the Relay for Life Nordicstyle by the American Cancer Society.

Questions to Ask

Can You Be More Active Against Cancer?

Ask yourself these questions.

1. Am I doing everything that my medical team suggests?

2. Am I doing everything that makes sense to support my health generally? This is called “self-care”.

3. Am I eating well, sleeping as well as I can, and exercising as well as I can?

4. Am I addressing my emotional and spiritual needs? Do I have support?

5. If I could take one step towards better self-care today, it would be to …

6. If I start to exercise better, then I will feel more…

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.

Exercise is Natural

From the book, Active Against Cancer, copyright Nancy S. Brennan, all rights reserved.

“I love to see the transformation of people’s spirits–and health–as they become more fit and more accustomed to exercise. I believe that exercise can help turn around anyone’s health and life. Exercise is just natural in a way that sitting at a desk, in a car, or on our couches is not. You know it and I know it. This is a good time to act like your life depends on it!”

Exceptional Cancer Recovery

What does it mean when someone survives cancer against great odds?

Greater minds than mind have pondered the question. Bernie Siegel, MD, for one, focused much of his good work on studying and helping “exception cancer patients.” If patients had defied great odds against them, and recovered from cancer despite very poor prognoses, what could medicine learn from their stories?

He looked for what they might have in common with each other. That effort made some people uneasy, I think. Why focus so much on people who have beat long odds? Aren’t you in danger of providing false hope to others who may not be able to also beat long odds? I think there are two questions there. Let’s go one at a time.

Noticing what exceptional cancer recovery stories have in common with each other, to me, is a great effort. Most clinicians, and most cancer patients, already know that one’s “odds” are not really the same as a prediction. A certain chance of recurrence is not a forecast. When the weather reporter says that there is a 50% chance of rain, we don’t really know anything much. When your “odds” for a recovery are neither dismal nor terrific, I would argue that you also don’t know much.

On the other hand, if someone can determine WHY a certain number of people with terrible prognoses will walk away back to good health, well, that is a valiant search, I think, for useful information.

In my book, Active Against Cancer, I profiled a cancer patient recovery story that is under the heading of “exceptional” for sure. Helene Neville, who is in her early 50s now, had brain cancer, and many years ago was told to put her affairs in order. Her surgeries and treatments were at an end. She was told she was dying. The details are in her profile in my book, or you can look up more about her on her website, here, at www.oneontherun.com.

Helene forgot to go home and quit on her life. Instead, she went running. And she ran a marathon on precious little training. And then she kept on running… all the way back to good health.

Putting her story of remarkable recovery in my book, Active Against Cancer, was a bit of a gamble. Some medical doctors consider such stories to be dangerous and to be misleading. Was I trying to claim that all readers of my book should go run marathons and they would be saved from terminal cancer? No. Was I trying to say that exercise “cured” Helene? No. Was I making a point that extremely long runs had extraordinary merit? No. So what was my point?

My point was that we don’t know why Helene’s cancer recovery story turned out so positively. We do know that it’s interesting. She is a model of fitness, now, and ran across the country in 2010. Ran across the country. In about three months. At age 50 or so. Um, hello, fitness role model? She’s a nurse and she publicizes her belief that medical professionals should be healthier in their fitness habits. Helene is a marvel and worth reading about.

But let me be clear: I’m not telling anyone to try to duplicate her recovery by running a marathon against doctors’ advice or when un-fit, un-well and un-ready. My book is very measured in what is recommended for exercise volume for cancer patients. Don’t overdo it. Don’t get fatigued. Don’t exhaust yourself. A half an hour of walking is a valid goal during treatment. So is ten minutes of walking one day or a little yoga or a little light weight-lifting. I defer to the American College of Sports Medicine, their recommendations, and those of ACS and others. Ask your doctor what is right for you. Get help from a physical therapist or trainer, or better yet, from a hospital-based cancer rehab program. Don’t wing it and don’t go overboard.

But if you want to have hope, feel free. One time during my treatment, a friend was pushing me to answer what my “realistic” odds were. I think she was skeptical that I was going to be okay. I was feeling optmistic. Again, she pushed: “But realistically, what are your odds?”

“Realism is sometimes over-rated. I have all the hope in the world. It works better for me that way.”

So if you want to, have all the hope in the world. And if you are in a tough spot, with your doctor telling you that your time is up, but a little voice inside your head gives an idea for how to fight for your life and health instead; or if there’s nothing else “they” can do for you, but you have something that you think that you can do for yourself; or if there’s nothing left to lose, and everything to gain; well, remember that sometimes inexplicably good things do happen. Hope is not in limited supply. Dig in.