This is a photo of me, on my first day back to aikido class after five months of chemotherapy for breast cancer. I look pretty happy, don’t I? Aikido classes are an important part of my life that I had to put on hold during my treatment. This blog post is about my personal experience getting back to aikido (and other physical activity) after chemo.
I have Sam to thank for introducing me to aikido. For a couple of years she kept suggesting that I come out to her dojo, and try this unusual Japanese martial art that focuses on self-defense. My only regret is that I waited so long. Aikido has become the central physical activity of my life, and I believe it has also helped me mentally and emotionally deal with my breast cancer diagnosis and fear of death from cancer.
After my double mastectomy, I rushed back to aikido as soon as humanly possible (after my surgeon gave me the okay, two weeks post-op). Aikido made me feel strong and centred, and connected to a community that I love. Being able to do aikido was healing for me.
So when my chemo started, it was really hard for me to come to terms with the fact that it was probably best for my health if I stopped attending classes until my chemo was over.
Chemo kills fast-growing cells like cancer, but it also attacks healthy fast-growing cells like hair follicles (leading to the hair loss typically associated with chemo) and bone marrow, where white blood cells are made. Low white blood cell counts then leave you vulnerable to germs and infections, and if you get an infection while your immunity is low on chemo, it could become a life-threatening emergency called febrile neutropenia.
My dojo is in a busy community centre full of families with kids coming and going, and I started chemo right at the beginning of flu and cold season. Yeah. Not a good combination. Add to that the fact that aikido involves close physical contact with several others during class, and two of our weekly adult classes are held immediately following children’s aikido classes… You get the idea. So I reluctantly gave up aikido classes for the length of my chemotherapy treatment – 18 weeks in total.
Thankfully, a black belt friend of mine visited me at my home every few weeks during my chemo, when my blood cell counts were at their highest before each infusion, and marked through techniques with me for a few hours. (I also memorized the Japanese names of most of the common techniques during my practice with him – something that will be useful, since all of my future belt tests will be in Japanese.) Apart from those cherished days, however, I went into serious aikido withdrawal during chemo.
Why did I miss aikido so much? Most classes (which are one hour or one-and-a-half hours long) are a decent workout – lots of full-body movements, calisthenics, breakfall (rolling) practice, and technique practice, which involves being thrown to the ground and getting up over and over again. But aikido also engages me mentally, as I try to master and recall the Japanese names of the techniques, as well as the techniques themselves. There are so many tiny details to learn, which is why the study of aikido can take decades. There are hundreds or even thousands of possible combinations of attacks, controls and pins, and on top of that there’s an element of coordination and patience required to blend effectively with your opponent’s energy, and redirect it without using excess effort. Done well, aikido is like dancing, and makes me feel like I’m flying, both literally and figuratively.
I’ve written on this blog about some of the other ways that I exercised during my chemo treatment. Don’t think that I’m some sort of superwoman, though. I wrote that blog post half-way through the 18 weeks of chemo, and the final nine weeks were much more debilitating that I expected. By my last chemo infusion I was spending most of the first week following each infusion in bed, sleeping and feverish. Exercise was not a priority, except to increase my white blood cell counts. I tried doing gentle qigong exercises every day, and that was about it as far as exercise was concerned.
So when my chemo was finished, and my white blood cell counts were finally back to normal, I was on fire to get back to aikido again. My doctor gave me the okay on a Tuesday morning; Tuesday night, I was dressed in my uniform and ready to roll. Literally.
Don’t think that I immediately reached my pre-cancer fitness level, though. Aikido classes were actually a humbling measuring stick for my stamina, and I was surprised by how much strength and endurance I’d lost. That first class, I had to sit down after the warm-up and watch the rest of class. And for about three or four weeks I had to stop frequently during each class and rest before playing again.
I feel pretty lucky that I didn’t experience too much lasting fatigue from my chemo, but there’s definitely been some. (Thankfully I didn’t have radiation treatments, which can also increase fatigue.) As I write this, it’s been seven weeks since I’ve been back at aikido, and truthfully only in the last week or so has my endurance felt like it’s returned to my pre-cancer levels. I had several injuries (knees, right ankle, right wrist) that I was nursing before my cancer treatment; since going back to aikido, they’ve all been acting up again, which has also put the brakes on overdoing anything.
My dojo offers classes six days a week, and I attend them all. But right now I only get on the mat for three or four classes per week. The rest of the time I just watch. I have a belt test coming up (the same belt test that Sam did, here), and I’ve been focused on getting as much practice as I can without stressing my body too much.
In addition to time on the mat, I also help set up and put away our dojo mats for each class, which is a nice, light aerobic and weight training activity. And I’m still doing qigong as often as I can, which usually ends up being three or four times per week.
In my experience, if you’re facing chemotherapy and you’ve already been fairly active before your cancer diagnosis, using your favourite activities as rewards to look forward to at the end of your treatment can be a great way to stay motivated and quickly get back to movement after your chemo is done. I know that for me, aikido was definitely the carrot on the end of the stick that made chemo more bearable, and I’m positive that my quick recovery from chemo has been at least partly due to my regular aikido practice.
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 michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.