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.”

Peace,
Nancy

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,

Nancy

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.

Peace,

Nancy

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.

Peace,

Nancy

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.
Nance

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.

Peace,

Nancy

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.

Peace,

Nancy

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.

Peace,
Nancy

The “One Data Point” Problem

I have been mulling over the “one data point” dilemma lately. Here’s what I mean.

When I had cancer treatment, after my major surgery and as my chemotherapy began, I decided to do whatever exercise I could do, in the amounts that seemed beneficial to me. I have always considered exercise to be health-promoting, so there was, in my mind, no reason to stop exercising unless I was medically directed to. I was encouraged to exercise, so I did. I recovered well.

I was able to exercise, with walking, swimming, one long hike once, and some water-skiing. I was fatigued and slowed down, in later months, but I didn’t have to stop exercising during treatment, and I continued to exercise after treatment ended. I credited exercise with helping me cope, helping me eat better, helping me not feel overwhelmed by side effects. My medical team thought that my blood counts came back up, after infusions, very well, and they considered me to be robust throughout treatment and tolerating my chemo very well.

My cancer recovery was also excellent, in terms of my cancer. I have had no evidence of disease since the early part of my chemotherapy treatment. It’s been four years of good health, since then, although no one, not me, or any MD, would say I’m a free from a threat of recurrence. I do have very good odds, at this point, and that is a very good thing. It’s the best I can do.

But does my experience prove that exercise helps in cancer recovery? Not really. Not scientfically speaking. Scientifically speaking, my experience represents only one data point. How do we know that I didn’t just have the ideal surgery and chemo? What if my exercise was irrelevant? Does my experience prove that exercise helped me? How would we prove that? I am just one data point.

I wrote Active Against Cancer because of the convincing and well-accepted evidence that exercise is good for one’s cancer recovery in most cases. The current medical consensus is that exercise has many benefits to cancer patients for whom it is appropriate. That’s great news for cancer survivors who can help their own recovery with pleasurable exercise during and after treatment, in most instances.

I based the book largely on the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Roundtable of Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Patients from June 2010. Their expert panel reviewed 140 or so related medical studies and concluded that cancer patients should be encouraged to “avoid inactivity.” I flipped that around and said “be active:” same thing.

Read the website page entitled “Ten Reasons” to see more details about why exercise helps to fight cancer and improve your cancer recovery. The information is elaborated upon in Chapter One of my book.

My message to you, if you are a cancer survivor is pretty simple. Exercise can help your cancer recovery.

You know what mission you really are on: You are trying to save your life and recover your health. Exercise can help you do that. How much can being active help? Will it save your life? Well, no one can tell you that.

But is it worth adding exercise to your self-care as a cancer patient? Yes, it is.

You might just be “one data point” yourself, but so what? Your one life is the one that you want to protect. Do the best you can to make a complete recovery from cancer by following your doctors’ advice and by taking care of yourself in meaningful ways, including exercising appropriately.

Peace,
Nancy

Exercising in Nature

This time of year, in Vermont, the leaves are just coming out. We’ve had a lot of rain this year, and the green is a very welcome sight. I was driving back home, along a river, when I remembered: this is the time of year that I was just starting chemotherapy four years ago.

I remember how strange the normal signs of spring looked to me during my cancer ordeal. I felt like I couldn’t get enough of looking at those new signs of life. Spring, always beautiful to see, looked even more potent and life-filled.

I was scared of chemotherapy, and didn’t know how it would be to have chemotherapy drugs (Carbo/Taxol) for six times, every three weeks. I had just had major surgery. But, I remember just looking at the leaves and thinking how beautiful they were.

Nature has always been a tonic to me. It was before cancer, and it certainly was during treatment.

I like to enjoy nature and exercise together. During my cancer treatment, I would walk outdoors often, swim in a lake , or just enjoy walking around the garden. I know some people enjoy “working out” in a gym. I applaud them for their exercise habits, but I’m more comfortable exercising in the natural environment. It adds so much pleasure, for me, to hear the sounds and see the sights of nature around me. It reminds me that I’m alive.

I hope that if you are facing a cancer challenge, not only will you find a way to make exercise part of your cancer recovery, but I hope you can do some of your exercise in nature. It can soothe your spirit well.

Peace,

Nancy

Published!

Hello, world.

Active Against Cancer: A Guide to Improving Your Cancer Recovery with Exercise is for sale on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, in both places as a paperback and e-book. Or you can ask your local bestseller to special order it for you through their usual distributor, Ingrams.

Momentum is building

Point taken: Book-building is a group activity. My house is a hive of activity, all centered around bringing a good book to the public this spring. It’s a little hectic right now, but while I can take a breath, here are some people to thank. In no particular order.

  • Quick with a virtual red pen, copyeditor and proofreader Kate Carter.
  • Quick with a bon mot, suggestion or complete rewrite, my husband.
  • Helping in the wings with motivation, faith, and Yankee pragmagtism, my mother.
  • “Can I read it?” Friends, professionals, and cancer survivors: you know who you are.
  • My book designer (team, actually) at Studio 6 Press. Excellent! Thanks!
  • The agent who said yes, giving me the thrill of acceptance. Temporary, but thrilling.
  • CreateSpace, that gave me the thrill of complete self-publishing control. Permanent.
  • The doctors who read the manuscript and gave informative interviews.

And very importantly, the cancer survivors who gave me long interviews about their experiences with exercise and cancer.

Thank you, everyone. We’re almost at pub date and I still have my hair.

Silver Lining?

I’m not much of a one for “silver linings,” but I have to admit that I have more time to write my book this winter because I messed up my knee one year ago in a ski fall. This winter, post-ACL repair surgery, I’m not “allowed” to ski down hills on my cross country skis. Which slows things down a lot because that means skiing only on the flats. I love hills. I miss them, but I want my knee to be 100% and I do not want another surgery. So, I listen to my surgeon and do what he says. “No hills, this year, period.”

And I have, ironically, made good use of the time not spent skiing by writing about the merits of exercise. Sometimes, life is funny like that. A silver lining to my sports injury is that I can hopefully help others be more active and more healthy in their cancer recovery!

Sure do miss those hills, though, both up and down!

Peace,

Nancy

Exercise Beats Cancer

What does exercise promise the cancer survivor, if anything?

The working title of my upcoming book, Exercise Beats Cancer, took some criticism today from a friend whom I esteem. Their concern was that a title like Exercise Beats Cancer seems to over-promise results. To them, that title seems to say that if you exercise you can conquer cancer.

Is that literally true? No. So, why say it? It could confuse people. Someone might go to their doctor and say, “All I need to do is to exercise, and this book says that I can beat cancer. Why do I need surgery and chemo or radiation?”

Well, I admit, I hadn’t thought of it like that. I didn’t really want to imply that exercise was the only tool needed to use against cancer. I’m not planning to claim it can “cure” anyone of cancer or should lead them to disregard their doctors’ advice or skip out on medical treatment. Not at all.

So, maybe the title will change. That’s okay. But before I leave the title behind, let me just explain why it was my “working title” for the last year or more.

  1. It’s catchy.
  2. It makes me feel motivated to exercise.
  3. Exercise is more fun than cancer, as in “going for a walk sure beats going to get chemo.” You know, double entendre, second meaning, subtle humor.
  4. It made me feel hopeful that exercise can help to beat cancer. That if I exercised, along with all other medical treatment, I might have an advantage against cancer.
  5. It made me feel powerful against a lousy disease.

But… the last thing that I want to do is to make medical doctors or their patients feel ambivalent about the book. Do I plan to overstate the benefits of exercise? No, I don’t. The truth of it: Exercise has so many legitimate benefits to cancer patients that not I nor anyone else needs to overstate it.

And so… the new working title has changed. Thanks for the feedback!