Category Archives: Nancy Brennan

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.


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.