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.

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