Insomnia and emotional resilience (Guest post)

IMG_8093

Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I’ve already written about my problem with sleep, the insomnia solutions I’ve tried that haven’t worked, and my recent resolve to make sleep time a priority over working or playing. This post was originally going to be about my experiences with regulating my bedtimes and waking times, but then a friend recently recommended Sink Into Sleep: A Step-by-step Workbook for Insomnia by Judith Davidson, and a paragraph from the book brought me another huge aha! moment about my own sleeping habits.

People with insomnia seem to be able to perform mundane tasks of daily living but they tend to have less enjoyment of their activities and show less “cognitive flexibility” – they tend to think more narrowly and less creatively – than people who sleep well. Although they are often able to perform work and other activities well, everything feels like it takes more effort. In sum, when people don’t sleep well for a long time, their mood, functioning, and quality of life are impaired.

It was the bit about cognitive flexibility. I suddenly realized (with an incredible amount of self-compassion) that in every instance that I can remember over the past 20 years, when I have felt most emotionally agitated and “fixed” in my thinking (read: frantic, defensive, and prey to “all-or-nothing” catastrophizing), I have also been extremely sleep deprived.

I can’t tell you what a huge realization (and relief!) this is for me. As someone who cares very much (maybe too much) about the feelings and opinions of others, I always strive to be even-keeled, understanding and flexible in my relationships. So I have quietly carried around a lot of shame regarding a handful of emotional reactions to difficult situations in my past, that have involved a difference of opinion with somebody else. Normally I’m quite logical, caring, and creative in my thinking – able to see many sides of an issue, and willing to be persuaded to change my own opinion by a compelling argument.

But a few times in my life, I have experienced what’s felt like an emotional “meltdown” that has taken me and the other person completely by surprise, because it’s so unlike my usual personality.

Seen through the lens of sleep deprivation, those meltdowns make so much sense now. It reminds me of little children who’ve been up way past their bedtimes. You know how they fuss and get all weepy and tantrum-y? That. I recognize that I’ve felt that. And all because of not enough sleep.

It’s not that I now think sleep deprivation excuses whatever I do or say while sleep deprived. I don’t. But in the future, when I know I haven’t been getting enough sleep and am likely sleep deprived, I can be more aware of my temporary lack of resilience, and take a step back from the emotional edge – maybe ask for a “time-out” or a temporary break from the discussion.

(And hopefully I can just plain avoid extreme sleep deprivation in the future!)

p.s. That book I mentioned above? I like it even better than the Ariana Huffington one – and I suspect that the CBT-I program it recommends is going to be my ultimate insomnia solution.

p.p.s. Being that this is a blog with a feminist lens, I feel compelled to add that when I’m talking about emotional meltdowns, I’m not talking about appropriate emotional responses to sexism and other oppressions, abuse, or the bad behaviour of others. There are times when it’s okay to feel hurt and angry, because someone is being hurtful or destructive.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

___

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.

Image: art journal spread, wax crayon and pencil on paper, August and September 2005

Prioritizing sleep (Guest Post)

IMG_8051

Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

See that cute photo at the top of this post? That’s one of my two cats, peacefully slumbering. The way he and his brother do…  all the fricking time. (Except in the middle of the night, when this one wants to groom me during one of my hot flashes. Yeah. Fun.)

As much as I feel awful when I have a wakeful night, and as much as I say I want more sleep, it wasn’t until I recently read Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time that I finally identified one of the core issues that was corroding my sleep. And it wasn’t my age (mid-life), my breast cancer treatment (which is causing chemical menopause), or the chronic pain in my knees and ankles from sports injuries – although all three can definitely be major contributing factors to chronic insomnia.

I simply wasn’t valuing sleep enough.

Let me explain. In her book, Huffington spends quite some time talking about how North Americans pride themselves on their sleep deprivation, and devalue healthy sleeping habits, which include going to bed around the same time every night, avoiding the use of electronics / screens (including televisions) while in bed, and allowing yourself enough time in bed for a good night’s sleep.

I recognized that was failing big-time on all of these.

As much as I may have, in the past, said that I wanted a good night’s sleep, since my late teens I have been all-too-willing to sacrifice sleep to the “higher good” of productivity – be it studying for an exam, finishing an essay, or – once I started working in the nonprofit sector – finishing a project, meeting a grant deadline, or working on my own creative projects or volunteer work outside of my full-time job.

If I need to get something done by tomorrow, I will give up sleep to get it done. And feel smugly self-righteous about my choice. Look how hard I work! See how much I’ve accomplished?!

(I just remembered a compliment that my (Scottish) paternal grandmother once gave me. I had spent part of the summer between my first and second university degrees cooking for a tree-planting camp in Northern Alberta, waking up at 4:00 a.m. every other day to make the camp’s breakfast, and she told me that I “must be made of good stuff to get up that early in the morning.” Enough said.)

I also think nothing of staying up late to do something that I enjoy – be it finishing a good book, watching a movie on Netflix, or working on a new drawing or blog post. In fact, when my life is busy I feel downright cheated if I don’t have time to do the things that I love doing. Add to that the healthy dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) which fuels my social media activity, and it all equals a daily to-do list that requires 20 hours to fit everything in. No wonder I was only averaging four hours per night, and desperately napping during the day!

When I recently recommended Huffington’s book to a friend, she wondered if it said anything that she didn’t already know. I told her that for me, the solutions weren’t the point. The point was that Huffington scared me enough to seriously consider giving up all my guilty pleasures: watching Netflix and YouTube in bed, reading books on my Kindle late into the night, and doing my Facebooking and creative writing (in bed, on my iPhone) in the early morning hours when I couldn’t sleep. Scared me, by making me realize that the consequences of continuing these bad habits could be deadly.

So I vowed to try.

I set myself a “cut-off” time each night for my iPhone use. I set myself a regular bedtime – which meant I would be in bed, with the lights off, by that time. I wouldn’t pick up my phone in the middle of the night when I woke up. And I would use my brand new Fitbit to help me track my progress at getting a better night’s sleep.

That was the plan, anyhow.

This is the third in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

___

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.

Photo: Cat napping, July 2016, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

Insomnia solutions I’ve tried (Guest post)

img_2964.edit540

Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

So I have chronic insomnia that’s lasted the better part of 10 years. What have I done about it?

Well, I can tell you what hasn’t worked.

(I was really touched to see that most of the comments on my last post about sleep deficit included suggestions for resolving insomnia, including meditation, books on tape, and limiting electronic screen time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m always open to hearing what works for people. It’s how we learn from each other. But please don’t think that I haven’t tried many of the things that people have suggested. I’ve been highly motivated to fix my sleeping problems over the years, because I’m definitely not a short sleeper. I really feel it when I don’t get enough sleep.)

So, some of the things I’ve tried:

Using a blackout curtain to darken my bedroom
For many years (from ages of 18 – 39 or so) I had heavy, pull-down blinds or metal mini-blinds covering my bedroom windows. They effectively blocked light from streetlights and the moon at night, making my bedrooms quite dark.

Then I moved into a studio apartment with a large window. My finances were limited, so I avoided purchasing any window coverings. There was a spotlight right outside my window, and it was quite bright inside my apartment at night. I lived (and tried to sleep) like that for a couple of years, and around this time my insomnia got quite bad. Not saying there’s necessarily a correlation, though.

Because at my next apartment (which had separate bedrooms), I made a heavy blackout curtain for myself out of black denim (and still use it in my bedroom today, one apartment later), and I still have sleeping problems.

Music, audio books, and guided medications
I started using all of these quite heavily in the bachelor apartment. I would play soothing music on a boom box near my bed at bedtime, but found I would wake up when the disc ended. (I still love this jazz first album by Pat Metheny, though, which was a bedtime staple during that period.)

I also tried soothing audio books like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which always put me to sleep, but again I would wake up periodically whenever the rhythm of his voice changed.

I tried a few guided meditations, same story. Sometimes the recordings worked, most times they didn’t. When I got a smartphone I even tried listening to timed recordings on my phone, but still found them unsuccessful at keeping me asleep. My favourite was an app called Sleep Machine Binaural Beats by SleepSoft, that produces great white noise if there’s something like a dog barking or a neighbour’s television that I want to block out.

IMG_8026

Herbal and dietary supplements
I’ve tried pretty much everything that’s recommended for sleep, including melatonin, kava, L-theanine, and 5-HTP – sometimes in combination.

I can’t say anything has really helped in the long term.

Pharmaceuticals
I’ve been really reluctant to go this route to solve my sleep problems, although near the beginning of my chemo I did ask for something from my family doctor, since I was still working full time and was worried about my work performance if I wasn’t sleeping well. She prescribed a very mild dose of the antidepressant trazodone, which I tried a couple of times without noticeable success.

Later when I was off work for the remainder of my chemo, I also tried Gravol and Benadryl to make me sleepy when my sleep schedule got seriously disrupted (I was napping all day and then awake most of each night). After a few nights each didn’t work as well, though.

It’s probably common sense, but all of the above, while having the potential to address symptoms, didn’t necessarily resolve the underlying problem – namely very, very poor “sleep hygiene”, i.e. bedtime habits that are non-conducive to a good night’s sleep. So that’s where I’m starting from at this point: changing my poor sleep habits – including the use of electronic devices in the bedroom.

This is the second in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

___

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.

Photo: Cats napping, September 2011, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

The problem with sleep (Guest post)

IMG_7992

Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

The problem with sleep? There are a few problems, actually.

  1. I should be getting at least seven hours per night.
  2. I’m not.
  3. This has been going on for a long time.
  4. Cancer treatment and recovery? Not helping.

Here’s what my typical night looks like:

  • Into bed around 10 pm.
  • Watch a movie or some videos on Netflix until I fall asleep around 11.
  • If I don’t fall asleep, keep watching stuff or surfing the Internet until I fall asleep, midnight or later.
  • If I still don’t fall asleep, take a Gravol (or part of one) to make me sleepy.
  • Wake up at 2:30… Or 3:30… Or 4:30… Wide awake.
  • Think about some stuff. You know – friendly, cheerful stuff, like “how am I going to get all those projects done?” Or “what should I have done differently in that situation that went horribly wrong?” Or “what should I do to make that relationship better?” That stuff.
  • Pick up my phone when the cacophony inside my head becomes unbearable. Which is most of the time. Watch some more movies or surf the Internet. Catch up on my Pinterest.
  • Maybe fall back asleep, 10 minutes before my alarm goes off at 5:30.
  • Go back to bed after feeding my cats their pre-breakfast snack. (Cat owners will understand; the rest of you? Never mind…)
  • Maybe get another hour’s sleep before getting out of bed for good at 6:30.
  • Or, if I’m lucky and don’t have urgent work to finish, try to sleep for another hour.

Lather, rinse, repeat – pretty much 365 days of the year.

I know it’s a problem. I know I should be getting more sleep. (If you haven’t already heard, sleep impacts body weight, heart disease, cancer, work performance and ability to “operate large machinery,” i.e. drive cars safely – among other things.

My sleep has been like this for a while. (Here’s a humorous blog post that I wrote – wait for it – 9 years ago about my insomnia.)

It got really bad when I started working in the nonprofit sector, when I couldn’t turn of my mind at night from worrying about my overwhelming workload and task lists. On a good night, I will sleep between six and seven hours. On a bad night…  three or four.

I also know a lot of the things I could be doing to improve my sleep. (You probably know them too.) Like having a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Turning off my devices before bedtime, and making my bedroom an electronic-free zone. Keeping my bedroom dark and cool. Avoiding pharmaceutical assistance.

After my cancer treatment (during which time I let myself do whatever I wanted, because I could sleep around the clock if I needed to), I really struggled to regain a regular sleep schedule. And because my work schedule is currently quite flexible (I can get up and work at 4:00 if I can’t sleep, and then nap in the afternoon), it’s been harder to motivate myself to make the changes I need.

My worst sleep-depriving habit is my smartphone use all night long. I have an iPhone that I use for everything – email, social media, taking and editing photographs, reading (on my Kindle app), writing (I started the first draft of this blog post on my phone), podcasts, music, surfing the internet, watching YouTube and Netflix…

And most of those, I love to do in the middle of the night. Sometimes that’s the only time I have in my day to catch up on my reading or viewing. (Wah!)

But recently I felt like I was hitting rock bottom, and needed to do something to address my worsening sleep deficit and fatigue. I was dragging through my days, emotionally cranky and unhappy, and relying more and more on afternoon naps and weekend sleep-ins to take the edge off my fatigue.

I kept coming across references to Arianna Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, and finally broke down and bought it because I knew that it would inspire me to change. Huffington is adamant about nixing nighttime electronics:

So I’ve begun to make some changes. I don’t like them, but hey – first-world problems. I really, really, really want better sleep.

This is the first in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

___

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.

Illustration: Crayon and collage on paper, September 2005.

 

Life lessons from aikido (Guest post)

IMG_7689

Huge aha! moment last week at aikido.

We have a brand new student who’s only been coming to classes for a couple of weeks, and at a class last week he did the warm-up and then stepped off the mat and joined me where I was sitting, watching class.

He asked me in halting English (he’s Korean) if aikido helped teach how to be calm.

Well.

Let me tell you, this has been a subject very much at the front of my mind for months – not only as I’ve been dealing with my cancer diagnosis and treatment, but also as I’ve been struggling with some huge ups and downs in my working life. And a couple of months ago, when I was going through a really rough few weeks with the latter, it was something I thought about almost every waking moment. How could I use my aikido training and practice to deal with emotional and psychological distress?

Last night I looked the new student in the eye and without missing a beat said, “Yes!”

The trouble was, I didn’t quite know how to explain it to him so that he would understand, because of the language barrier. In a flash, it came to me.

I pointed to my bald head, and said I’d had cancer, and many other problems.

Then I pointed to the mat. Sensei Therese was teaching second control – nikkajo – at that moment, and I pointed out the students who were applying the second control to the wrists of their attackers.

(In the photo at the beginning of this post, the people on the right side of each pair are applying the second control to the wrists of the people on the left, who’ve moments earlier just tried to hit them. A video describing the entire technique is below.)

I took the young man’s hand in mine just like the people on the mat, and explained that when we first learn second control, we usually grip our training partner’s hand very tightly. I made a grimace, and screwed up my face as if I were trying to do something very difficult, and gripped his hand as if my life depended on it.

Then I explained that the technique actually works better if our hands are relaxed. When we tense up, the attacker can feel it through our touch, and they tense up too, making it harder to move them. If our own hands are relaxed when we touch them, they don’t realize there’s a threat, and then at exactly the right moment we can apply quick pressure at the proper angle, and they’re controlled by us.

I changed my grip on his hand.

“Gentle,” I said, and moved his hand. I repeated the illustration one more time. Screwed my face and body up, and held his hand in a death grip. Then loosened up, “gentle,” and moved him.

And that’s when I had my aha! moment. It was the answer that I’d been looking for for months.

Relax your “grip” when you’re under attack – from someone else, or a situation, or even your own thoughts. Relax, and act from the relaxed place.

Sounds so simple.

It’s part of why I love aikido, though. Our training teaches us, through repetition, to respond a certain way to being attacked. And we repeat it over and over again until it becomes reflex, so that if we’re ever in a situation where we really need to defend ourselves, we act automatically.

When life is throwing all sorts of crap at you, ease up your mental grip. Go to your centre. Then act from that calmer place. Practice it even when life isn’t throwing crap at you, and it will become automatic.

___

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.

When did I start enjoying exercise?! (Guest post)

IMG_7629

I sat down at one of the tables in the community centre common area – hot, sweaty, and wanting a long, cool drink. I looked down at my feet, where I’d thrown my gym bag full of my aikido gear, and had a sudden realization.

I’ve grown to love physical exercise.

It hasn’t always been that way. I grew up a girl in the 1970s when, thanks in part to Title IX in the U.S., women and girls were becoming increasingly active in sports and intense physical activity. But I hated gym class at school, especially once I started menstruating at age 12. Being hot and sweaty, and wearing skimpy clothes at a time when I didn’t even know how to use tampons (and pads were bulky) made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Plus as an introvert, I had an aversion to team sports.

Thankfully my high school had a dance program which students could take instead of Phys. Ed., and I learned that I loved to dance. I also loved to swim, and joined a pool leadership program and trained to become a lifeguard and swimming instructor.

In my mind I still didn’t think of myself as a jock, however. Dance satisfied my aesthetic desire to be feminine and pretty, and swimming didn’t feel like work because the water cooled you off and washed away all the sweat.

Aerobics classes became all the rage when I was at university in the 1980s, and were enough like my dance classes to feel safe and comfortable. I was intrigued by running, but really hated what felt like extreme physical exertion and discomfort.

I used a bike for transportation through high school and university, but again really hated being hot and sweaty – a challenge, since summers in my part of the world are humid.

In my late 20s I discovered yoga, which was a revelation. It was something that I could do that capitalized on my flexibility, but also didn’t leave me too hot. (I did a gentle Iyengar practice.) I also started hiking in wooded areas during my late 20s, and that felt like a great fit: gorgeous surroundings, peace, quiet, and communing with nature.

Then I discovered aikido two years ago.

Around the same time (thanks to my friendship with Sam and exposure to this blog) I became aware of how important it is – especially as we age – to do regular physical activity. Plus sitting is the new smoking, and all that.

But it’s not guilt about my sedentary job that makes me attend six aikido classes a week. And it’s not that I don’t sweat during aikido class – because I do. (And now that I’m bald from my chemo, I notice the sweat on my head more than ever.)

I’ve tried high-intensity workouts in the past year, but the only thing I like about the 7 minute workout is its short length. I also hate the exercises that my physiotherapist has prescribed for my various injuries. The repetition bores me to tears.

I can bear all those things I dislike – sweat, repetition, being out of breath – in aikido class, though. And since my revelation, I’ve been trying to figure out why.

I think part of it has to do with the dance-like nature of aikido. There are physical movements to learn and perfect, and each time you do a technique it’s a new experience, because you may have a different partner, or move a slightly different way each time. There’s always an element of the unknown, of surprise.

Then there’s also the mental exercise that fully engages my mind, and helps me forget how hot or out of breath I might be. It feels truly extraordinary, this love I have for going to a community centre six times a week.

And then there’s the excitement of the fun of it – of successfully remembering and executing a sequence of movements, of flipping upside-down when you’re thrown, or yelling a loud “kiai” when you’re done.

Whatever the reason, it delights me to no end that I’ve embraced physical exercise so heartily. I love the ritual of packing at home for a workout, and unpacking my damp clothes afterwards. I love getting dressed in my gi. I love entering the dojo, and the workout I get from setting up the heavy tatami mats for practice.

Most of all, I love the way I feel after a good class (that hasn’t exacerbated my injuries): flying on an endorphin high, feeling strong and centred.

___

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.

Fitness after chemotherapy (Guest post)

IMG_7638

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.