Reviewing Stowe Weekend of Hope

At the Stowe Weekend of Hope 2011

A few thoughts after the 2012 Stowe Weekend of Hope.

1 – On Friday morning, as the 3-day conference got going, a group of cancer survivors and I took a walk along the Stowe Rec Path. About 20 people braved the morning fog and mist to come along. They were a great group, and we walked for about an hour before we went indoors to our second location to do some more exercise and to talk more about the benefits of exercise to cancer survivors.

2 – I sometimes learn more than I teach. During the walk, I felt humbled by the strength and courage of the cancer survivors that I met. So many people have a great attitude for themselves about their challenge with the disease of cancer. I met people who were devoted to exercise, despite being in chemo or having other treatment-related challenges. I learned never to assume that people aren’t motivated enough to exercise: so many people have gotten the message that exercise helps them feel better and heal better. Wonderful.

3 – At the health fair, Saturday, I spoke to people about my book all day. I also listened and talked about how people were coping with their treatments and prognoses. Again, it’s more humbling than not. I appreciate people putting their trust in me when we speak. I also learned that “selling my book” isn’t entirely natural for me. I’m just not very slick.

4 – Five years is quite a bit of time. I’ve been a cancer survivor for five years. It isn’t very hard to remember what it was like to be bald, scared, treated with drugs and surgery, and living in the cancer “bubble” where normal life seems like it’s held at a distance. But it’s a little bit hard to remember all that–until I’m speaking with someone in the middle of it, and then it all comes back pretty clearly. And then, I hope to be someone who is a good cancer survivor who gives someone else hope.

5 – Our stories are all different. But at some level, our stories are all the same. Wishing you each peace on journey and strength on your path. – Nancy

April Anniversaries for Active Against Cancer

author_nancy_brennan_skiing_in_2007Today is a good day.

Today is the five-year anniversary of my cancer surgery and diagnosis. The photo on the right, of me skiing in the Vermont sap season in the April sun, is right before I knew I was sick. I knew I was tired, too tired, all the time, but until I sent myself to the ER, where they did a CT scan, I didn’t know how sick I was.

Please, if you have any “weird” symptoms, get medical attention. I thought that I would be laughed out of the ER for worrying about feeling something strange in my abdomen. Instead, I began to get the medical care that would save my life: surgery and chemotherapy.

Today is good day.

I have been free of any signs of cancer since treatment. I have tried to use these years wisely, to help others understand the many benefits of exercise to their cancer recovery. Medical doctors agree; researchers agree; the new guidelines from the American Cancer Society agree: exercise can help you heal as a cancer patient and survivor.

You need to do a rather small, but consistent, amount of exercise to gain benefits. If you’re in treatment, your exercise volume might be 15 min. a day and still make a difference. You don’t have to push hard, go fast, or be super-fit to do some meaningful exercise. If you can’t do aerobic activities like walking, you can perhaps do some yoga, stretching or light weight/strengthening work. Avoid doing nothing, if you can. Ask your medical team for advice, read my book, or get help from an exercise therapist. Remember,

Today is a good day to help yourself heal.

Taking Care During Cancer Treatment

Recently, I spent a few hours talking with a cancer patient who is a friend of a friend. She had seen my book, given to her by my friend, and I was happy to try to talk with her one on one. I’m not a medical professional or a physical therapist, so I wasn’t going to give any advice beyond my authority to give, but having researched cancer and exercise, I do have some perspective to share. Here are few thoughts I want to share.

Take It Easy: During cancer treatment, “pushing yourself” to exercise more strenuously, more intensely, or more often than feels right to you and “right for your body” is probably not the best choice. Prioritize: rest enough, and then do activity that is gentle and soothing. For some, it is difficult to believe that fifteen minutes of easy walking might be sufficient to boost their immune system. It is. Far better to err on the side of gentleness than tire yourself out.

Pamper Yourself: Next, approach exercise as a way to pamper your body and rest your mind. Try to enjoy it. Try to find some activity that feels like a relief from illness, treatment and your overall experience of facing cancer. Use it as an escape.

That approach might seem subtle or picky, and maybe I’m just weird, but I believe that your “body” isn’t really separate from your mind, and your “body” doesn’t want to be pushed. It’s already in crisis mode. It wants to be addressed with kindness, with gentle activity, with soothing music in the background as you stretch and lift a few hand weights. It wants you to sink in to your breathing and be there with awareness.

Exercise can be more than another item on a cancer patient’s to-do list. It can be a time of hope.

This next thought is just from my ongoing personal recovery from cancer.
¬†Remember to Address Your Psychosocial Needs: Here’s what I didn’t do enough of during my cancer recovery: I didn’t really get enough social support for my process. I thought that I did, but I didn’t. I didn’t join a support group. I didn’t know anyone with my type of cancer issues or spend time with similar survivors. I tried a few counseling sessions, but I dropped these after treatment ended. I should say: I thought I was taking care of myself by getting enough social help from friends and family, but looking back, I could have used more counseling, longer-term.

Obviously, I’m the type of person who might prefer to go for a walk in the woods rather than talk with counselor, but I know I would have slept better and resolved my anxiety and PTSD from my cancer experience better if I had sought out more professional help when the insomnia and other issues wouldn’t go away. And yes, being tired all the time for four years was bad for my exercise regimen and not a help to my health or happiness. I’m quietly celebrating that I have finally recovered, just shy of the 5-yr survivor anniversary.

My lesson to share is this: Even when treatment is over, don’t sell your mental health post-cancer needs short. Here’s how long I think it took me to get over the trauma, emotionally, of my cancer ordeal: Five years.¬† I also have heard it as a benchmark that other people cite. Cancer is a big deal. You don’t just skate away, especially depending on your specific situation.

Just be good to yourself, however you need to be, for as long as you need to be. Get help, when you need it.

Wishing you peace on your path,


Lovely Endorsement from Shannon Miller

This past year, Shannon Miller, who runs a business named Shannon Miller Healthy Lifestyle, (aka SML) went public with her fight with cancer. Shannon, you may recall, is an Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics.

She is also a wife and mother now. Her ovarian cancer episode was, to many, shocking both because she is young and because she has such a healthy lifestyle. As I know only too well, myself, a healthy lifestyle does not eliminate all cancer risk.

Shannon bravely detailed her cancer challenge on her website’s blog. When Active Against Cancer, my book, was first out, USA Today newspaper ran a story about Shannon’s being in chemotherapy. I sent her the book immediately, and I hoped that it would help her feel encouraged.

Of course, I’m not saying that I had a lot to teach an Olympic gold medal gymnast about fitness (NOT!), but I thought that the words of experts who advocate for exercise during cancer treatment would be meaningful to her. I followed along, in her blog and in the media, as she went from chemo patient, to educator, to spokesperson for pro-active cancer survivors, and onward. Now, she’s a vibrant cancer survivor. I’ve rooted for her complete recovery.

She seems to be doing great! Chemo is over and there is no evidence of disease, according to her website updates. Shannon is using the whole episode to help others with their cancer challenges. Thank you, Shannon.

Recently, she made this lovely endorsement of Active Against Cancer on her website. She said, in part, “We think all cancer patients and survivors should have this book to share its knowledge [with] all. Many thanks to Nancy for sharing this book with us here at SML!”

Cancer makes it a small world, sometimes, or a big club. Let’s all root for health for 2012.



My Holiday Gift: Skiing Again

The day after Christmas, I received a holiday gift. I went cross-country skiing for the first time this winter. Ah, the loveliest of sports: Nordic skiing.

The winter has not been blessed with much snow where I live, so this was one of the first days for many avid skiers to get out on the skinny skis at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. We shared the trails with a variety of beginners, vacationers, and multi-generational groups. I saw intrepid skiers who might have been in their 80s or 90s, and toddlers being urged on by parents. I saw teenagers tolerating their slower parents, and adults encouraging their senior parents.

In the mix, I think I appeared to be just what I am: a slightly out-of-shape used-to-race middle-aged skier with great technique. I might have bristled at the label except for two reasons: 1) I’m a cancer survivor, so every day is a good day; and 2) I busted up my knee pretty badly in 2010 so this is actually the first winter that I can foresee getting in shape again.

I’m planning to race back into shape, which will involve some humility (timed results-wise) and some fun (everything else!).

Which reminds me of cancer. Sometimes your ego steps very far to the side. Cancer, for me, was one of the least-ego-restricted times of my life. Ego, which keeps up thinking we have a certain self-image to maintain, can not withstand being bald, having chemicals poured in through your chest’s new port, or having GI problems that you wouldn’t want to impose on anyone. Ego does not like having cancer and it does not like having cancer in public.

But, I found, once you get past the ego-blowing phase and settle into the ego-less phase, life can actually be pretty pleasant. Take the baldness thing. I like to swim. When I was bald from chemo, it was summertime. I would go to the lake late in the day, meet my husband, put on my little lycra skull-cap, and swim. After a relaxing swim (no pressure to swim fast!), I would switch into dry clothes and pop my wig on. Off to dinner. No wet hair! Bonus!

One day, I was making the transition from cap to wig when I got distracted by some little task. I was fumbling around by my car when I realized that people were staring at me, unusually. I took stock. I said, to my husband, laughing, “I forgot I was bald!”

Since my cancer ordeal nearly five years ago, I haven’t managed top fitness. I have battled insomnia and some GI troubles. I have battled post-cancer post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer-test anxiety. I have blown up my knee and had a knee surgery, with oodles of knee pain and disability. (Not as hard as cancer, I know, but it was pretty lousy.) I just have been off-my-game as an athlete. And my ego didn’t like that. Especially when my well-researched book on exercise and cancer recovery demanded that I start making public appearances. Where was my ski-racing toned self? Not available. I would have to manage on partial fitness. Sorry, ego. Best I could do.

I’m starting to sleep better lately. My knee is better. My anxiety about cancer recurrence is on low-to-no simmer on the back-most burner after 4.8 years. I’m aiming to be in roughly good shape in about ten weeks.

Cancer recovery is a years-long process for many. My two cents worth? Give yourself a break. Accept where you are. Protecting your ego isn’t as important as you might some days think. Ask for help if you need to; exercise with a tolerant friend, at whatever pace you can muster. Enjoy whatever fitness you can find.

It’s great to aim for optimal health and race-ready fitness, if that’s appropriate. But, sometimes we have to accept “pretty good” health and fitness. Just keep going. Keep going and do what you can.

It’s snowing today. I checked out the race schedules. I’m still a ski racer, at heart. It will take some time to be a pretty fast ski racer again, perhaps, but that’s okay. Lucky me. I’m 53. I’m healthy, and I’ve got some time. And my ego? Shrug. I have better things to do than worry about that.

By the way, it’s the holiday season, and I’m especially grateful for my health. I’m also thinking of those people who are facing cancer, now, holidays or not. I wish them well, and hope that they are finding strength and love. Best wishes to all.


10 Reasons to be Active in Cancer Recovery

One reason to stay physically active during cancer treatment is because it makes you feel better emotionally and physically.

In the book Active Against Cancer, you can learn more about the medical reasons that exercise helps you heal better from cancer. Being physically active may help you tolerate your cancer treatment better and may help you make a full and lasting recovery from cancer.

The reasons why exercise can help your cancer recovery are explained in easily understood language with medical accuracy. Here is a summary; the book provides further important details.

Five Reasons that Exercise Helps You Heal at a Cellular Level

1. Exercise creates an anti-inflammatory cellular environment, and this helps fight cancer.
2. Exercise boosts the activity of your immune system, and this helps fight cancer.
3. Exercise lowers your stress level and this helps to regulate chemicals like cortisol, which helps fight cancer.
4. Exercise helps to regulate levels of important sex hormones, and this can help fight certain cancers.
5. Exercise helps lower your fat burden in your body, and this can help your body fight cancer at the cellular level.

Five Reasons Exercise Helps Your Body’s Functioning as a Whole

6. Exercise improves your energy-level, reduces your sensations of fatigue, and helps improve your sense of well-being.
7. Exercise can help you sleep better and receive the therapeutic benefits of sleep.
8. Exercise encourages healthy eating helps, improves appetite, helps you to crave nutritious foods, and helps your digestive processes.
9. Exercise lifts mood which in turn helps promote healthy self-care choices, clear thinking, and reduces or avoids depression.
10. Exercise increases your fitness and strength, which can help your body fight illness and recover faster.

Bonus: Exercise is fun!

Profiled in Active Against Cancer Book

AAC Profiles: How Did Other People Stay Active During Cancer Recovery?

Ten cancer survivors who used exercise to help themselves fight against cancer are profiled in the book.

Need role models? Need inspiration? Each profile helps you understand real examples of how cancer survivors stayed motivated, stayed active, and displayed courage during their cancer recoveries.

The amount of exercise that they each did, the type, and the intensity vary, as do their ages and cancer types. What didn’t vary was their commitment to staying active in pursuit of a full recovery.

None of us facing a cancer challenge are really sure about our “outcomes.” The uncertainty can be maddening, frustrating, or frightening. What happens to someone else with your kind of cancer is not always what will happen to you.

But there is something that you can count on: If you are dedicated to doing the best you can to recover your health, then you can move forward without regrets. Get Active Against Cancer today.

Riding with Livestrong founder, Lance Armstrong, 2011

Here are some of the people who are profiled in the book.

  • A woman who was told to “get her affairs in order” after battling brain cancer, but who, many years later, in 2010, completed a run across the country from California to Florida in one summer. She is an advocate for healthy lifestyles and an author.
  • A man who lives with blood cancer, but who competes in running events including 24-hour run events–at age 69. His doctor applauds his running and healthy lifestyle.
  • A breast cancer survivor and mother who makes time for daily exercise and participated meaningfully in cancer fundraisers such as Romp to Stomp.
  • A former high school and college stand-out athlete, who underwent treatment for her cancer in high school, but whose determination to stay involved in sports and whose recovery made her college sports career possible. She is becoming an oncology nurse. She is also a TNT alum.
  • A woman who is a blood cancer survivor who uses yoga as a daily ritual and helps others in her community experience yoga therapy for the health and well-being.
  • A man who faced colon cancer treatment by including a devotion to exercising at his gym, and whose doctor applauded his activities and commended his ability to tolerate a complete, arduous course of treatment… and succeed.
  • A breast and ovarian cancer survivor who used activity during treatment, and who is a long-time survivor and founder of a foundation for cancer survivors.
  • An ovarian cancer and kidney disease (two transplants) survivor who used bike riding and other activities in her multiple comebacks, and raced in the Livestrong Challenge.
  • An ovarian cancer survivor who used hiking, walking, swimming and water-skiing during her five-month-long chemotherapy, and participated in the Relay for Life Nordicstyle by the American Cancer Society.