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Building Resilience

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with A Single Step

Old Chinese Proverb

The pandemic inches along, with its nearly two years of challenges for the globe. I just spent an hour watching Olympic cross country skiers racing. A top tier racer who fell early in the race was able to win the race with a wide margin of victory. A team whose coach had been quarantined with Covid was shut-out, despite high expectations. A veteran American did well; a young American did very well for his age of 21. And in the women’s race yesterday, similar surprising disappointments for some and similar well-met expectations for others. It’s ski racing. It’s not easy, and it’s not predictable.

But as any well-trained racer knows, the journey to an Olympic medal began many years beforehand with small steps, like discovering the joy of sliding on snow or the early stages of mastery of uphill techniques. There’s a love of the feeling that comes when you do your best–to prepare, to be fit, to be ready and to be mentally tough.

Speaking of mental toughness, the commentating for the Olympics is graced by the presence (and ever astute observations) of Kikkan Randall, US Gold Medal Olympic skier–and cancer survivor. So good to hear her insights on the racers, the course, and the competition. So good to hear her voice!

Small steps can lead to mental resilience. When you face a health challenge, be it cancer or something else, the most precious goal is to remain positive. To do so, take small steps that help you feel empowered and encouraged. Give yourself credit for going for a short walk when the temperature is below zero, for instance, rather than not going out at all. Give yourself credit for resting when your body is tired. Give yourself credit for establishing the goals that you can meet, instead of setting goals that you can not reach this week or this month.

I learned a lot, in 2007, when I was carefully measuring my energy output during arduous chemotherapy. The struggle to remain positive in attitude captured my full attention. Other times, with lesser struggles, we don’t always notice when we are going off-track.

Are you putting off self-care or exercise until your situation is easier? Is the pandemic providing too much of an excuse for not getting enough exercise? Do you miss your friends’ supportive presence? What can you do to make up for these differences? There is always opportunity. Make some small adjustments.

Small steps. I don’t ski as fast as twenty years ago. Illogically, this change surprises me. It shouldn’t. This winter, I have been trying to ski with a light heart and a lot of joy–at the speed that I can ski! I’m trying to no longer compare myself to 20 years ago. I remember that level of fitness, and I really miss it, but I am glad to still be skiing. It’s a pleasure to be out in the woods, in the winter, taking time to enjoy the sport that gave me so much resilience in 2007 when I faced cancer. It’s restorative; it’s good for me; and it reminds me of so many great memories.

I guess the blessing of aging is that you can have a lot of great memories. Make some new memories today. Feel your resilience. Do what brings you joy.

Taking Health for Granted?

I remember reading a cancer-related book, during my months of chemotherapy. The author had written, in his forward, that people sometimes wrote to him along these lines: “Are you still alive? I don’t want to take advice about my cancer recovery if you’re not.” Funny/not that funny.

I’m still here. I’m still without evidence of any cancer. I’m healthy. But… honestly, I have let stress about work, politics, the pandemic, work, work, and more work, get the better of my health intentions for some time now. (OK, the pandemic is new, but the rest is not.) I run a small business and I have told myself for about five years, that “it’s OK if I don’t spend as much time having fun, getting outdoors or staying active for a little while.”

Except that new routines of over-work and too much sitting have their ways of becoming — just that — “routine”. So, I am putting one foot in front of the other, going out the door, and trying to re-adopt my more active, more happy, more welcome lifelong habits. And over the last few months, I’m turning the tide of inactivity and over-work back to the familiar ways of being active.

See you out there on the trails! Make every day count, and take none of them for granted! – Peace, Nancy

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.



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!


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.



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 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.


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,

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
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,


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,


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,

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,


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,


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

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.

Ask the Author: May I See Your Credentials?

Here is my imagined introduction to an upcoming talk about Active Against Cancer.

“Hi. My name is Nancy Brennan and I’m the author of ‘Active Against Cancer‘.

I’m a cancer survivor and an athletic person who researched the subject of exercise and cancer recovery to help other cancer survivors know why to exercise and how to be effective. I have no special degrees or credentials in the field of physical therapy, sports medicine or oncology rehab.”

“So why did I feel that I had the right to write this book?”

“Because exercise has great medical value to cancer patients and I wanted them to know what the experts have been saying, recently, loud and clear, about its value.”

“Because I’ve been a successful, fit recreational athlete for almost 50 years. I’ve learned a few tricks about workouts, motivation, habits, beliefs, and nitty gritty physiology of exercise. I also vetted the book with an MD/oncologist and a physical therapist/world-class athlete so that I could be sure that I had my facts straight.”

While I know everyone’s experience won’t be identical to mine with my cancer ordeal, I do have a cancer survivor’s perspective on what it’s like to exercise during treatment. I know what it’s like to want to go for a walk for your health on the day after your chemo infusion. I know about the stress of cancer treatment and how exercise can be an ally, if only you don’t push yourself too hard.”

I’m also a good writer who did good research; a writer who was a medical copyeditor; a writer who was a biology major and whose father was a physician. Writing my book, my biggest fear was of overstepping and writing anything false or dangerous to anyone. I made sure that I was quoting expert sources and not playing at being a doctor.

And, in the end, I wrote my book because I care. I couldn’t find a deeply encouraging book out there and I thought that there should be one.

Exercise has genuine medical value to cancer patients, but ultimately, exercise is natural, normal and something that we can each trust our bodies to do, within common sense bounds, even if we are cancer patients.”


Move More, Heal Better

It happened today while I was running. Suddenly, I knew how to summarize two years of research about exercise and cancer recovery:

“Move more, heal better.”

That’s it. Move more, heal better.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should run up a mountain during cancer treatment, but it means that you should do what you can, appropriately, to stay active as you recover from cancer.

Move more? How much is that? More than not at all. More than a little. More means at least you will move around a little every day, most days. More = not sitting or lying still all day if you can possibly do more than that.

If you are struggling with anemia or side effects of other kinds, moving a little might mean doing 5 yoga postures, doing a little bit of strength work with a stretchy band (Thera-bands) and walking to the end of the block and back. You might be able to dance around your living room or walk the dog. You might be able to swim, even slowly with rests, or float in the pool on a noodle and move your legs.

And if you move more, you will heal better.

You can read my book Active Against Cancer for more details on why that is and on how to do so safely and enjoyably.

Strength on your journey, peace on your path,


Long distance thoughts

I set out for a long run, recently, and remembered one of the virtues of a long run: pure relaxation. Planning to run an hour makes it automatic for me to relax for the first five, ten, twenty minutes. There is no pressure to do anything but find a comfortable “go all day” rhythm and relax my mind and body. Because of the distance involved, the first mile is just a happy warm-up and goes by quickly.

It’s not unlike taking a trip in the car. If you plan to go across town quickly on a short trip, it can seem to drag on because in your mind “it shouldn’t take long.” But if you plan to drive for, say, six hours to start your vacation, the first hour will go by in a snap.

So, this got me thinking two things. One: running or exercising for a long duration is easier than you might think. The mind and the body make adjustments. If not the first time, then with a little practice, it will happen that you relax into a long outing. Stay in the moment; don’t worry about how far you have yet to go.

Second thing: Cancer recovery is a long outing, an endurance event, a trip far from your normal life habits. So, too, perhaps in cancer recovery there is a need to relax as much as you can. Pace yourself to go easily. Don’t worry about how long it will all take; just stay in the moment.

That’s my thought for the day. I’m wishing all of you in cancer recovery to build up endurance and find a way to relax during your cancer challenge. Stay hopeful in the moment and try to find the positives in every day, as you make your way back to health.



Refreshing Exercise

Kayaking, Nancy Brennan, Active Against Cancer
At its best, exercise is refreshing. It can make us feel more alive, calmer, happier and more energized. I recently took a quiet one-week vacation on a Maine lake, where the emphasis was on swimming and paddling a kayak. By the end of the seven active days, that magical re-set button had been hit: I felt more energetic than in months.
Finally, after a long recovery from a knee injury, I felt “like myself” again because I increased my fitness level.
Coming back from injury or cancer ordeal, you may find that you don’t organically feel like you have enough energy to exercise. If you are new to exercising regularly, you may not feel immediately energized by one or two workouts. Fatigue (mental and physical) is also common during arduous cancer treatment.
How can you get going with scheduled exercise if you are tired to get going at all?
The first part of the answer lies in managing your expectations. Exercise certainly can be energizing on a daily basis, most of the time, for most people. But if you are new to exercising intensely or you are in cancer treatment, you may have to adjust your expectations for a time.
It’s okay. Remind yourself that exercise contributes to your health in other valuable ways even if it doesn’t make you feel all charged up. For example, you are benefiting by enhanced immune system function or by increasing the likelihood that you won’t be dogged by fatigue in your post-chemo years. Take heart, and keep up your moderate exercise program, even in the face of mild fatigue. (More details are present in my book about when exercise might be contraindicated.)
Are you just needing to become more consistent about exercising daily? If so, you can choose what exercise to do, as you ease in to a routine that will keep you feeling refreshed. Some will find that a long walk will make their energy come back up. Some will find that being consistent every day and exercising on a schedule will help them feel refreshed.
Other people will find that one activity (swimming anyone?) that works for them even if they are tired. Choose activities that you can adjust easily. You’re not going to feel motivated to exercise if you disregard how you feel and bully yourself to do an overly taxing workout that you are not ready for. Keep looking until you find the answer that is right for you. (And read my book if you need more helpful tips.)
Exercise, ultimately, is a great way to refresh your energy–and help yourself become healthy. Take yourself out for a walk, swim or paddle as soon as you can. Enjoy!

Do It for a Friend

This past Sunday, July 3rd, I read an AP story by Nancy Armour about Kevin McDowell (18 years old) and his friend Lukas Verzbicas, two talented, already accomplished, athletes who have just completed high school in Illinois. Their summer plans included Kevin preparing to race for the Bejiing junior world championships in triathlon and Lukas preparing for his middle distance running career at Univ of Oregon.

Kevin was a favorite to win the junior world championship, and Lukas has broken the 4-minute mile, in high school, one of only five to do so–ever. These boys are special.

Then, cancer dropped in to pay a visit. Kevin has Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is getting chemotherapy. His friend Lukas’ new race goal? Compete at the junior world triathlon championships, for which he had also qualified, and try to win one “for Kevin.”

If that story doesn’t get you to put your best sneakers on and get out the door, I don’t know what will. Read the rest of the story’s details here.

Best of luck to Kevin for a complete and swift recovery, and to Lukas–best of luck for a swift race! You were both my inspiration when I went for an hour-long run on the trails yesterday.



Do Everything, Don’t Do Too Much

It’s ironic. My two main tenets of cancer recovery seem to be opposite in intent. Do everything that you can to recover from cancer well, and don’t do too much of anything, including exercise. Let’s look closer at this.

I believe that a mindset of “I will do everything I can to beat cancer” is crucial. I wanted to rally; I wanted to show cancer that I was serious about my recovery. Practically speaking, I wanted to use every reasonable remedy or approach that was available.

  1. Group support.
  2. Visualizations.
  3. Herbs and supplements.
  4. Exercising moderately and cautiously.
  5. Diet modifications that favored health.
  6. Re-examine my life purpose.
  7. Positive relationships and love.
  8. Music for healing.
  9. All manner of best medical treatments.
  10. Therapy and counseling.
  11. Acupuncture.
  12. Readily admitting my “negative” emotions of fear, anger and suffering.
  13. Hope.

These were some of my tools. I took all those tools out of the toolbox to fight cancer. Even though some days it seemed like maybe I should just expect chemo and surgery to “beat cancer” for me, I wanted to use all the tools that made sense to me. I got expert advice where I could, and I was careful when I couldn’t. I didn’t do anything that seemed risky in itself. I tried to be sensible but also thorough.

For me, this “do everything” approach meant that I would have no regrets later if my cancer came back. I was doing the best that I could to fight cancer.

And along with “doing everything”, I was moderate and didn’t do too much of anything, including exercise.

You can read more about specific examples of what types and amounts of exercise are advised in my book, Active Against Cancer.

What to Say to Someone Facing Cancer

There’s a neat article in the New York Times about what to say to someone who is sick. Interesting and frank, the article talks about what to say and do and what NOT to say or do. I agree with some points and not with others, but it’s a good discussion and it’s thoughtful. Thoughtfulness, it seems to me, is what is required when talking to someone facing a life-threatening illness and treatment.

When I wrote Active Against Cancer, I thought a lot about the fact that I was writing it for a variety of people with a variety of cancer situations, a variety of physical obstacles, and the many various moods that one goes through. I worried and wondered, “How can I find the right tone for all readers?” So, I settled on just sounding like myself as much as I could.

I tried not to assume that a reader was “down” or that they were well enough to walk that day or … well, anything. It was an interesting challenge. I have been told that my tone in the book comes across as very encouraging. I like hearing that. I hope that my tone works for my readers most of the time.

I thought a lot about these issues when I was facing cancer. Then, in writing my book, I wanted to sound different than the way most doctors are somewhat forced to sound. Because doctors can not predict, most of the time, exactly what will happen to a patient, they talk in statistics and probabilities. Try as you may, it’s hard to get them to talk any other way. “What about me? What will happen to me?” They will revert to “your chances” and keep the conversation there. It’s fair, it’s their best choice, and it’s not that satisfying to most of us.

When I was in treatment, after researching statistics all that I could bear, I decided to be consciously optimistic. I quit trying to be realistic–whatever that was. It was so much easier to be optimistic. It was healthier. It made me want to get up and try to do what I could to protect my health–eat right, exercise, sleep as best I could, take care of myself emotionally, have a good day, week, life.

I hope that the people who read Active Against Cancer can intuit my belief that statistics are for doctors, but as long as you or I are still breathing, we have the choice to believe in our making a good recovery. Then, we need to go act like we believe in it. Follow doctors’ orders and also take care of ourselves in meaningful ways.

Will that guarantee our success beating cancer? Maybe not, but it is surely easier to get up in the morning if we treat ourselves as “recovering” rather than as a statistical dot on a graph. I’m not always 100% successful at not being scared or worried, but I at least know that I am committed to doing what I can as if I may live cancer-free from here on. So far, so good.

Peace on your journey, strength on your path.

Father’s Day: My Chemo-buddy

I’m a little late for Father’s Day, but I wanted to say that I missed my father yesterday.

He passed away in 2008 of cancer. He and I shared chemo struggles for 18 months or so, as his treatment ended as mine began, and then his began again. He was a doctor before he retired, and he had survived three other kinds of cancer. My father was fond of saying that he had always been very lucky and had no complaints at 83.

In his memory, then, I want to say thank you to all the doctors who help encourage their patients and who offer to do the best that they can to save lives. Too often, just as many children can take their parents for granted at times, we take our doctors for granted.

Thanks to them all for all they do.



Waterskiing Again: Comeback Two

Nancy Brennan Waterskiing During Cancer Treatment

Waterskiing in Chemo Summer

When I was getting chemotherapy four years ago, I was able to water-ski every few weeks. Thanks to the encouragement of my doctor, husband and brother-in-law, I was able to feel like an athlete, not a cancer patient, for at least the few minutes when I was carving turns on the water. I distinctly remember my first waterskiing on July 4th, the year of my April surgery. I had a memory, while skiing, of being helpless in my hospital bed post-surgery. A big grin broke out on my face, as I skied. I was back to life!

The best thing about being bald that year was that my drysuit fit over my head more easily in the cold water of fall. But, mostly, I remember feeling happy when I skied, as if I was out-smarting my cancer by being so bold and strong. It helped my morale enormously, especially in later months of treatment.

Yesterday, June 6, 2011, I was in the drysuit again and waterskiing for the first time since I broke my leg and hurt my knee in Feb. 2010. I had my ACL replaced in surgery last June. My surgeon recently pronounced my knee excellently healed, and so the water-ski drought is over. I was nervous but popped right up and let out a big “wa-hoo.” Time for more turns in 2011.

Enjoy some activity today, whether you’re 100% healthy or making a long, arduous comeback. Try to do what you can do to be active against cancer and please, have fun doing it if you can.

Commit to Exercise: Start Today

I’m currently preparing for two interviews (web-radio and TV) and I have been considering what is the most important thing to tell people in cancer recovery about exercise. Certainly, as related in the first two chapters book, it’s important to tell people why exercise is so important during cancer recovery.

It’s not just on my say-so, of course. A panel of 14 experts in the field studied all the available medical studies on the topic and presented their conclusions to the clinical oncologists of the US last June. “Avoid inactivity,” the panel said. Cancer patients should avoid inactivity. Be active, in other words.

But, after you have the information about why you should exercise, will you do it? You will or you won’t. So, to me, someone with a cancer challenge faces a crucial decision. Will they commit to exercising during their cancer recovery? You can’t “sort of” commit and expect the same results as someone who commits to it. I’m sure that you know the difference between how you act when you “think something would be good for you” but you’re not really dedicated to it. Don’t let your plan to exercise flounder with a half-hearted attempt.

The most important thing that you can do for your health and your cancer recovery, in terms of adding exercise, is to commit to exercising consistently and in the appropriate amounts and correct ways. That’s what my book helps you with–to know what to do and why. But the commitment–that’s up to you. I can only hope to convince you that it will be one of the best commitments of your life.

Be active against cancer.



My Yellow Bracelet Means Hope and Strength

I wore a certain yellow bracelet off and on throughout my cancer treatment’s five months. It made me feel connected to other cancer survivors, to a healthy recovery that I was hoping for, and to the perseverance of a particular high level athlete who had recovered from a devastating cancer diagnosis.

I think that the yellow bracelet phenomenon helped me accept myself as a cancer survivor without shame or apology. I think it helped me feel hopeful and, yes, stronger. It helped me see past the pain, fear, and bewilderment of cancer treatment to the days when I might reach a mountain summit or a race’s finish line again. I saw the yellow bracelet as a symbol of that hope.

Now, the little yellow bracelet’s many fans are suffering from, at least, some confusion as Lance’s reputation takes a few more knocks.

I’ve decided, for myself, that the yellow bracelet and Livestrong’s global message is so much greater than any one person now. It’s an undefeatable message of strength, hope and courage.

Last fall, 2010, I went to a so-called “Twitter Ride” near my hometown in Vermont, when Lance Armstrong was coming through town. I wore my Livestrong t-shirt and my bracelet. Lance was running a bit late, and those of us waiting around had time to chat. In the crowd of hard-core bicyclists in various team kits, I looked less like a cyclist and more like a cancer survivor. People inquired, politely, was I cancer survivor? I got a lot of heartfelt congratulations and “way to go” comments from strangers. I felt like I was special. I was proud of being a healthy cancer survivor, a part of a tribe.

I owe my willingness to be a public cancer survivor, in large part, to the way that Livestrong has changed the public’s mind about what being a cancer survivor can be. I’m grateful for that. Years ago, a woman with my type of cancer history would have done her best to keep it secret. Now, I can be public, write a book to help others, and wear my Livestrong kit with pride.

Let’s try this: Keep believing in the power of individuals to overcome cancer diagnoses; keep believing in reaching towards a full recovery for as long as you can with as much courage as you can; keep being proud to be yourself, no matter if you are bald, tired, weary or frightened.

I believe in the collective power of the cancer survivor community. We must all help each other get through cancer, and then we must work towards ending cancer. My little yellow bracelet still represents all that to me. I hope it does to you, too.

We are lucky that we have that yellow band as a worldwide symbol. Stay strong.