by Andrea Zanin
Four years ago, I underwent the second of two surgeries and radiation treatment for a rare spinal cord tumour that caused me chronic pain for over twenty years. I’ve shared a few posts here about chronic pain and my experiences of figuring out how to be in my body and regaining fitness post-treatment. Today I’m doing a deep dive into some recent developments on that journey!
When I started cycling more post-cancer treatment, I used my feet and calves to pedal. Seemed the obvious choice. Then I realized that was doing a helluva number on my knees, which were getting creaky and painful. So I started consciously using my quads more. I also started making sure to press down with my big toes in order to stop my knees from winging out. I figured good alignment would help reduce pain.
This in turn meant taking more of the effort along the inner line of my legs, which strengthened the muscles weakened by the ways long-term chronic nerve pain had affected my gait. Definitely an improvement—no more knee pain, much stronger legs over time.
This summer, I started to notice that as I strengthened my core muscles with yoga, my body naturally wanted to use them in cycling too. As a result, my core started doing more of the work and pulling my legs along for the ride. The push and pull came from my gut muscles, while my legs were the pistons that were simply there to rise and fall, lending their weight to the job but doing less of the work.
This more concentrated core work also got my glutes involved. So flat-surface cycling was a gut job, like front-wheel drive, but uphill cycling became a butt job, like rear-wheel drive.
This week I’ve noticed two new things. One, my butt is strong as a fucking tank. I can *feel* the power of those big muscles every time they fire. It’s a lot like the pleasure of a deep yawn or a good stretch in the morning—I can feel blood filling up places it hasn’t reached in a long time, tingly and rich. Everyday squatting is a breeze (sitting, picking things up from the ground, etc). In yoga, balance poses are easy—line up the leg bones, grip the core, engage the glute and then just hang out in whatever weird one-legged position with barely a wobble.
Also, the added strength means that I can do backward-bending movements that previously triggered leftover nerve pain. Because I can hold myself steady with my glutes, my lower back doesn’t collapse and put pressure on my surgical site with its missing bones and stripped nerves.
But it’s really more a feeling thing than a performance thing. It’s like a heating system that was shut off for many, many years is finally being shot full of power, and the coils are creaking and glowing. It’s still early days, I can tell, because I think in the next phase I won’t even notice this feeling anymore. At the moment it still feels new.
The second thing is, when I cycle, those stronger butt muscles are collaborating with my core—so instead of front-wheel versus rear-wheel drive, cycling feels like four-wheel drive no matter what kind of incline I’m on. It’s like my parts are figuring out how to operate as a cohesive whole. I don’t need to tell them how or think about it. My body’s got this all by itself.
I’m almost exactly four years post-cancer treatment and I’m still healing. But this phase is unlike the others thus far. This phase isn’t about emerging from the deep hole of pain. This one is about building upward from flat ground, and discovering what this new body can do beyond surviving. I had years of thinking this wasn’t even possible. So please forgive the possibly TMI description of the inner workings of my butt muscles here—it just feels kinda amazing to experience this and I don’t want to take a second of it for granted.
Andrea Zanin has written for the Globe and Mail, The Tyee, Bitch, Ms., Xtra, IN Magazine, Outlooks Magazine and the Montreal Mirror. Her scholarly work, fiction and essays appear in a variety of collections. She blogs at http://sexgeek.wordpress.comand tweets at @sexgeekAZ.