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What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer (Guest post), #breastcancer, #cancer

MLG“You’re the happiest cancer patient I’ve ever seen.”

I was having coffee with a psychotherapist friend, and her words caught me off-guard. I thought I was handling my breast cancer diagnosis well, but I hadn’t realized my attitude was remarkable.

Most people I know are scared of cancer. Scared of hearing about it, scared of getting it, scared of fighting it, scared of losing their lives to it. There’s been a lot of cancer in my family, and it’s taken the lives of one of my grandmothers and my father. I’ve seen what cancer can do to a person. I’ve seen my father shriveled up to a brittle rattle of skin and bones, in constant pain, all hope gone.

I know what cancer can do.

But I’m being completely honest when I say that from the moment I was first diagnosed, I was not worried about my cancer. Instead I’m upbeat and positive – even joyful – about my future. Aside from some fatigue in the days leading up to my double mastectomy, I’m living a full life and enjoying the things I love, like walking in the woods, working out, meeting with friends for coffee, and working on a few extracurricular projects I’m passionate about.

Is there something wrong with me? Am I suppressing fear, anger, or grief?

After some reflection, I’ve realized that my attitude towards my cancer probably has a lot to do with my personal beliefs, and my aikido practice.

I am completely addicted to aikido. I’ve been studying this martial art of self-defense for a year-and-a-half, and I attend four classes per week. I don’t have anything like a balanced sports life. It’s aikido, and the stuff I do that supports my aikido (like physiotherapy for my aikido injuries, gentle walking, gentle yoga for flexibility, and some bodyweight exercises for strength).

I’ve written about why I love aikido here on this blog, and my feelings have only gotten stronger over time. But I never realized how much aikido has changed me until my friend told me I was a too-happy cancer patient.

Unlike most martial arts, aikido doesn’t teach you how to attack – only to defend yourself against attack. You blend with your attacker’s energy and redirect it, so that the encounter leaves both of you unharmed.

Some beginners struggle to give their full energy to aikido practice with a partner (Sam has written about this here), but for me this is one of my favourite parts of aikido. There’s a particular kind of technique where you’re encouraged to “enter” the attack that’s coming towards you – to intentionally move in to meet the attacker’s strike. I love this kind of practice best of all.

When I see my attacker raise his or her arm, I propel myself forward with lightning speed to connect and blend with their striking arm, and offer up one of my own fists to their face as a distraction, before throwing them to the ground. I can’t describe how thrilling this is – to leap intentionally into harm’s way, knowing that you can avoid being hurt by moving quickly in the right way. There’s something so satisfying about being proactive in a risky situation, and I love it.

I found a lump in my right breast in early June. I also noticed that my nipple was turned inwards, and that the skin on one side of my breast dimpled when I raised my right arm. I’d read enough about the warning signs of breast cancer to know that all of that was potentially not good news. I waited and watched my breast for a menstrual cycle, to see if it would change, or if the signs would go away, and they didn’t. During that time I also read a lot about breast cancer on the Internet.

When my lump didn’t go away, I went to my family doctor and she recommended a mammogram and ultrasound. Those results were inconclusive, so a biopsy was ordered. By the time I got my biopsy results a couple of weeks later, I’d read even more about breast cancer, including most of the information on both the Canadian and American Cancer Society websites. I can tell you how breast cancer is staged, and about all kinds of benign breast lumps. I read about lumpectomies and mastectomies (and decided that if I did have cancer, I wanted a double mastectomy). I read about genetic cancer and cancer survival rates. I read about reconstructive surgery (and decided I didn’t want that).

So when I was finally sitting in the doctor’s office and the words that came out of her mouth were “I’m afraid it’s bad news,” I wasn’t taken by surprise or shocked. I just did what my aikido practice had taught me. I entered the attack.

One thing I’ve learned in the weeks since my diagnosis is that every cancer patient’s journey is unique. There’s no right or wrong way to fight cancer, and I respect every cancer patient’s personal reactions. There’s nothing wrong with being devastated, or sobbing for days, or shaking with fear, or screaming with rage.

But here’s what I know: Entering the attack feels amazing.

This is the first of a three-part series on breast cancer, sports and body image.
Part 2: Why I’m happy about getting my breasts cut off
Part 3: My pre-surgery boudoir photo shoot


You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

19 thoughts on “What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer (Guest post), #breastcancer, #cancer

    1. Thanks for sharing that blog post, @Quixie. I had similar struggles with bullying in school, but didn’t have martial arts back then.

  1. I love how your martial arts training has given you a feeling of some control in an otherwise terrifying situation. Thank you for sharing your journey. You rock!

  2. Dear Michelle, your post is so beautiful and inspirational – thank you so much for sharing it. Your centred and purposeful irimi (entering movement) is a wonderful and instinctively wise response. It places you firmly at the centre of the encounter – calm, in control and ready as you say to blend and redirect.

    As you are clearly an obsessive aikidoka 😉 you may have already come across the work of Paul Linden, but if not, here’s a link you might find interesting and relate to:

    In this clip, he uses a similar metaphor to yours, of moving directly into the disease’s attack. And he explores it in the context of the aiki concept of maintaining a loving and accepting attitude towards your attacker – which is of course often far easier said than done. He says, “If I can learn to make peace with and feel kindness towards the Parkinson’s it works better than if I hate . . . the hatred increases the tremors and the acceptance reduces the tremors”.

    He has also written a piece called “Parkinson’s – The Ultimate Uke” (where uke is your attacker, as you know), where he writes, “What do I choose to become? […] Do I cultivate habits of fear and anger about my condition or habits of power and compassion? So in the end, practising Parkinson’s is very similar to practising aikido”.

    Wishing you so much love and continued happiness. As O Sensei said, “The method of training is to find the glorious path of transformation […] The mind should be as clear as the vast sky, the deepest ocean, and the highest mountain. Do not shrink before any challenge”.

    Sorry that this reply is so long, but I just think what you have written is so awesome, and wanted to respond to you at length. Take care!

    1. What a beautiful response to my post, Kai. Thanks for sharing the work of Paul Linden – I wasn’t familiar with him. I enjoyed the video immensely, and am looking deeper into his work.

      As an update, I am two weeks into my chemotherapy treatment, which is scheduled to end in mid-March (6 treatments, each 3 weeks apart). So far I am feeling very well; the biggest challenge has been juggling full-time work (yes, I’m still working, and intend to as long as possible!), self-care and all the bureaucratic self-advocacy within the medical and medical insurance systems.

      In the first week after my chemo treatment, I posted on Facebook that I was feeling the lowest I’d felt since my cancer diagnosis. One of my fellow aikidokas responded with a beautiful comment about how she had seen me throw huge black belts, and do beautiful ukemi. “Fall down seven, get up eight,” she reminded me. That simple reminder that I can fall well and get back up again has sustained me ever since.


  3. Thanks for sharing the update Michelle, glad all seems to be going well for you so far. Keep smiling and getting back up – remember that ukemi is the hiden (secret or mystery) of aikido 😉

  4. Strongest girl I must say. The way you fought with your cancer, no one can. You have given them the inspiration to fight it courageously. Thanks for this, thanks for your smile, thanks for your efforts, thanks for making other people believe on the strength they posses within themselves.

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