When I sat down to write a piece for my blog today, I started to look to the notes on my phone. I routinely save topics on there that I might like to write about later. But before I even got to those stored notes, the mind-body connection popped into my head, and I knew what I wanted to write about. And this is why: In the past 7 months, nothing has been more transforming, mentally, emotionally and physically, than my making my health a priority for the first time in my life.
It goes back to May 2015, and a cluster of spots on my annual mammogram. Funny, because I was considering skipping my annual mammogram that year. I had gotten busy! I had become legal guardian to two teens in April and life was FULL. So as it were, I put it off, usually going on my birthday in April, this time going in May after my boyfriend pestered me a little bit and said I should probably not skip it. Okaaaayyy, fine. I’ll make an appointment. I had no breast cancer history in my family and no previous issues and I considered it an exercise in wasting time, but something I would do to show him, and myself, I was responsible. I was 44 years old.
In June 2015, after another mammogram, an MRI and a biopsy, I was given the diagnosis of Stage 0, non-invasive, DCIS cancer. Otherwise known as Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. Otherwise known as “the best type of cancer you can have”. Geeeeee, thanks doc, I feel so much better now.
I was shocked. Devastated. Scared shitless. Let me again emphasize how scared I was. I had no idea about cancer or types of breast cancer. I didn’t know anyone with cancer and no one in my family had cancer. The doctor, the medical oncologist, did her best to explain it to me, while I sat, internally dumbfounded, externally calm, cool and collected. She explained my treatment options. She explained the success rates. She looked from my boyfriend to me and back again. She was waiting for an answer. How did I want to proceed? She wanted to get me on the surgery schedule as soon as possible. I left the office, with a promise to call her and tell her my decision as soon as I could.
Finally, when alone (which is hard to do with two kids at home!), I broke down, sobbed, in fact. I sobbed in my bed, I sobbed in my car, I sobbed on the phone with my mom. I researched. I researched some more. I researched again. I stayed up late at night reading everything I could about DCIS. What was this? Why had I gotten it? Why had I gotten it at such a young age? How could I have gotten it with no family history? What were my treatment options? What were the success rates? How do they know? Are there different outcomes for those who get it so young? Why did this happen? I’m a very practice, science-based, rational decision-maker. So after a lot of thought, I finally decided on a lumpectomy with the 6 1/2 weeks of radiation they recommended. I couldn’t see lobbing off my whole breast for cancer contained in my milk ducts. Seemed radical. Totally respect those who make that decision. It’s your body and you have to live with it. As it turns out, I had to have a lumpectomy and two re-incisions…which means they had to go in two more times to take more tissue that they believed contained cancer. Maybe I should have had the mastectomy…
Anyway, after three surgeries I was ready for radiation to start in several weeks. I was told some patience get tired from it. My first thought: I can’t be tired!!! I have to work!!! I have kids!!! I can’t take time off work!!! I have things I need to do!!! The tiredness is more from the grind of having to go to the hospital every day, Monday through Friday, than from treatments themselves. I had been told this early on (plus, I had done all my research about it), but I was super paranoid I would get too tired to live my life. Taking a leave of absence was not an option. So, I had decided I was going to start exercising to be ready for the possible fatigue. I started walking outside with my neighbor after re-incision #1. I planned on averting fatigue, if at all possible, and I knew exercise could make me more invigorated and energetic. I had avoided exercise for a long time. Why? Because I was busy. Because I was a single parent, working, and doing it all. Because I had other priorities. Because I was overworked and stressed. Because my kids took priority and that made me a good mom. Because I liked carbs and sugar and those things drained my energy. Because…
By the time radiation began in September, I had already lost weight. I was happy about that, but it’s not what drove me. I wasn’t weighing myself. There was, however, always a nagging thought in the back of my mind that did drive me: did I fuel cancer with eating unhealthy, not exercising and being overweight? Could I have prevented this? Was it partially my fault I got cancer? I kept walking. I walked with my neighbor. I walked without my neighbor. I walked in the beautiful colors of the fall. I walked in the plummeting temperatures of late autumn in Michigan. I walked until the trees had no leaves. I took in every sight, every smell, every touch of the air. I walked. I thought. I reasoned. I felt sorry for myself. I talked. I walked with my cancer. And that fall, I grieved my way though my cancer diagnosis, step by step.
Radiation was well on its way. I was working full time. I was taking care of kids. I was walking. I was radiating. I started eating better. The weather turned cold. I joined the local community center. I walked on the treadmill. I radiated. I began incorporating some weight lifting into my routine. It felt good. My friend’s attendance fell off. I kept going. I radiated. I tracked my progress. I tracked my food intake. I lost weight. I liked it. I radiated. I went to the gym. The kids didn’t die from missing me. I was doing it. I was taking care of myself, my whole self.
At week 5, things got hard. By week 5 1/2 I almost quit radiation. I was in pain. A lot of pain. The radiation was burning my skin. My skin was peeling and weeping. It hurt to wear a bra. It hurt not to wear a bra. It hurt to move my arm. It hurt to overhead press a weight because it stretched my skin. I kept lifting. Luckily, the skin was least painful in the evening and I was able to ignore it more and keep lifting. I kept walking. I walked faster. I incorporated jogging intervals into my walk. I felt good. I knew I was doing something good for my body. My body responded and so did my mind!
Fast forward several months. I have joined a different gym with more space, more equipment and more hours. I go there 5 days a week. I lift, I cardio, I track my nutrition. And this is what I’ve learned: there is absolutely a mind-body connection. It reminds me of the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln when he was asked about his religion. He said, “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that’s my religion.” This is exactly how I feel about what I am doing. When I workout, I feel good. When I don’t workout, I feel bad. And that has a direct impact on my mental health.
Mentally, working out routinely, and I mean specifically lifting weights, puts me into a head space like no other. While lifting I am focused. I am breathing. I am putting my mind on a singular goal. Lift the weight up, put the weight down. Breath. Lift it up, put it down. Breath. There is a name for this in psychology. It’s called mindfulness. There are several similar definitions, however Psychology Today says mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. Bingo! And mindfulness is attributed to decreased rumination, stress reduction, boosting working memory, more cognitive flexibility and less emotional reactivity. I can tell you it does that for me, and more, so much more.
Emotionally, I feel stronger and more even keeled. I just don’t think I have the capacity to be both emotional and exerting physical energy at the same time. Every day, I’m one workout away from emotionally washing away the ups and downs of my day. As the physical tide comes in, any upset or worried feelings wash away. And I can rely on it. I’m the type of person who likes predictability. Most of us are creatures of habit. But if that habit predictably creates a clean emotional slate that carries you to the next day, it’s the best kind of habit to have. It does it for me in a way that chocolate never did.
Physically, I cannot tell you what lifting weights has done for me. I am strong. I am no longer winded. I want to take long hikes; I take long hikes. I want to climb big staircases; I climb big stairs. I move my body. I challenge my body. What else can you do body? I bet you can do THIS! I can make you look the way I want you to look now. I bet I can make my waist narrower and my booty bigger. Yep, I can. I bet I can sculpt my shoulders. Yep, I can. I challenge myself to reinvent myself, any way I want. Physical limitations? Not on your life! And to think, I had put them on myself before, voluntarily, out of sheer ignorance and negligence. Whaat?
I am reaching the 10 month mark post-diagnosis. I’m feelings good. I was one of the lucky ones. I’m lucky I got cancer. I’m lucky I got they type of cancer I did. Am I sad I got cancer? You betcha. Am I afraid it might return? Yes I am. These feelings are normal. Working out isn’t putting me in la-la land. I’m still a realist at heart and I know my chances of getting cancer again are there. I understand working out isn’t going to solve everything. But it has given me so much I never knew existed. It has given me, ME. And that all happened because cancer happened. A cancer diagnosis fueled the mind-body connection I needed to experience the whole person I am. For that, I am grateful to cancer.
(Pictured above: A favorite walking spot. Stony Creek Metropark, Shelby Township, MI)