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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,