Category Archives: Nancy Brennan

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