charity · competition · running

Mudmoiselle 2018 (Guest Post)

Biopsy. It’s not a great word. The first time I heard it directed at me was six weeks after a reprehensibly bad gynecological procedure done by a horrible male doctor. I had always believed doctors infallible. This guy changed my mind. And so, after refusing to return to him when the going got awful, my new doctor requested the biopsy. In contrast to the previous fellow, she was lovely. The biopsy, on the other hand, not so much.

Out of an abundance of caution, we proceeded with treatment as if the results came back positive. A week later, when the results returned inconclusive, I was glad we had. It took another six months before we could repeat the biopsy. Mercifully, it came back negative. There are certain moments in life when you realise you haven’t been exhaling properly. That day was one of them.

I was fortunate that my results came back as they did. I’ve known too many others for whom things turned out differently. I won’t pretend I have the eloquence to capture the toll cancer has taken on the people in my life. It’s a nasty, pernicious, destructive thing.

For me, six months wondering gave me time to think and time to prioritise. I walked away from the experience knowing that I would do my best not to take my health for granted again. I was also determined to be a better advocate for my own self-care…and to punch cancer in the face every chance I got.

Mudmoiselle Guelph was an opportunity I fanatically embraced. The event, run by the Canadian Cancer Society, is held annually at Cox Creek Cellars just to the north of the city of Guelph. It is a 5km obstacle course designed for the moderate to advanced athlete. (They recommend you train for at least six weeks in advance.) The event does allow Mudmonsieurs, by the way, though anecdotally, I’d say most of this year’s 500 participants were women.

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(Image of me covered in mud wearing a Mudmoiselle medal.)

My team of five intrepid Mudmoisellers called ourselves “The Flailings.” Our team slogan: “Let’s get ready to FLAIL!” None of us had participated in the event before, so we figured t-shirts would be handy to help us pick each other out in the crowd. Obviously, a flailing air dancer was a perfect mascot. (Even if it did end up looking like a weird, ghost-like creature according to my five-year-old.)

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(Snapshot of the back of our team t-shirt with the words “The Flailings” and “Mudmoiselle, Sept 15, 2018.” A neon green flailing arm dancer is the centre image.)

Our team was a part of a mid-day heat. The organisers had us begin by reciting the “Mudmoiselle oath,” a moment of sobriety that, I fear, only heightened my team’s sense of giddiness at the ridiculousness of five grown women running around a vineyard in the scorching heat. I don’t honestly remember many of the obstacles that we ran through, though some are etched in my mind forever. First among them, the second obstacle, which was true to the event name.

This memorable obstacle was nothing less than a giant pit of fenced in, man-made, oozing mud. I suppose I give Mudmoiselle credit for putting it so close to the beginning, because if you’re going to get muddy, you had better get to it sooner rather than later. And, of course, the only way to get to the other side was to crawl through the goo. By mid-day, participants had established two parallel ruts, one on the left-hand side of the pit and one on the right. I looked at my team members beside me. We cheered a good cheer. And then I made the only possible decision: go down the middle.

Throughout the remainder of the two-hour experience, we launched ourselves over hay bales, scaled muddy inclines, walked through bogs (while, obviously, singing “Stand By Me” and praying for a lack of leeches), and swung from tires. By the end of it all, I had rope burns, ripped knees, purpling bruises, and exhausted triceps. I also had a blast. I do not remember the last time I cheered on strangers, particularly as they muscled themselves over questionably stable wooden walls. We were all there to help one another along, because goodness knows for many of the participants these obstacles were symbolic of so much more.

(I crouch on my hands and knees on top of a large hay bale.)

There is something unique about the sense of community that emerges out of a group of people dragging themselves through the mud together. At the end of it all, my team and I sat at a table, marvelled at our crusty, sore bodies, and shared stories of people we knew who were touched by this awful disease. We raised a glass to those we had lost.

On the car ride home, with multiple towels draped over my seat to protect the car, the children moaned about mommy’s awful smell. And all I could think was, yes my dears, that’s the smell of being alive…and bog water. Actually, it’s mostly bog water.

(I walk sideways along a wobbly wooden plank while holding on to a guide wire.)

Kimberly Francis is Acting Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph, where she is also an Associate Professor of Music and a passionate feminist musicologist. She’s not ashamed to say that Taylor Swift, Guster, and many, many tracks from Big Shiny Tunes can all be found on her workout playlist.

diets · eating · eating disorders · food

Sugar free September? Good God no?

 

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We’ve thought a lot about sugar here on the blog. There was Tracy’s plan to dump sugar, your reaction, and her change in plans. See her posts Dumping Sugar: this is not a detox. and Dumping the Sugar Dump: critical follow up.

I’m officially leery of quitting sugar entirely. See Six reasons this feminist isn’t giving up sugar and Sugar on my tongue: In defence of the sweet stuff.

And I think I can safely say, for me at least, I don’t want to open up that particular can of worms again for awhile. However, our experience of blogging about sugar convinced me that it’s controversial and complicated. This issue isn’t easy.

That’s why I was super surprised to see the Canadian Cancer Society advocating Sugar Free September.

About Sugar-Free September

Fancy a month off the sweet stuff to help raise funds for the Canadian Cancer Society?

Sugar-Free September challenges you to go sugar-free for 30 days to raise vital funds for the Canadian Cancer Society to create a world where no Canadian fears cancer.

Commit to quitting the cookies and brownies, lock up the doughnuts, ditch the candies and kick the sugar habit by signing up to Sugar-Free September and raise money for life-saving research and vital services for people living with cancer.

Most Canadians consume diets high in added sugar, which can lead to excess weight gain. Research shows that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer.

Get your health and body back on track by reducing your intake of food and drinks with added sugars from your diet for an entire month! It’s a great way to learn how easy it is to moderate consumption while also feeling the benefits of healthier eating.

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I worry that this feeds into food fear and that very little good can come of it. I worry that people who want an excuse to adopt a very restrictive diet will find this appealing. And I worry it will hurt people with a history of eating disorders.

But that’s me. I’m the over-thinking worrying sort. Pretty much an occupational hazard!

What do you think? And if you’re doing sugar free September, how’s it going so far?

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fitness

Mental health, lifting weights, and getting out of bed

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Today I shared on our Facebook page this piece about weight lifting and depression.

The tried and true Harvard study from the 1990s found that the heavier the weight a person used, the more depression improved. A similar study from Duke University found that depressed participants who weight trained for four months, four times per week for 40 minutes overcame their depression without medication. The Duke researchers found that for every 50 minutes of exercise each week, the rate of depression decreased by half. 

Great news right?

But I shared it with a “your mileage may vary” proviso. Not everyone who’s depressed is able to get out to lift weights. Sometimes, some days getting out of bed is a challenge. You might know that exercise helps but knowledge alone isn’t enough to motivate. I also worry sometimes that people will think treating depression is easy. Just get some sunshine and get moving! But in real life, it’s often not that simple.

So I also like these:

An aside: I’ve got a different, but related, worry about sharing good news stories about cancer and exercise. See Exercise Tied to Lower Risk for 13 Types of Cancer and How Exercise May Lower Cancer Risk. People may start to blame people with cancer for their illness (you could have fought it with exercise!) and over-estimate their own immunity if they’re regular exercisers. Exercise may help but not always.

 

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Aikido · fitness · Guest Post · health · martial arts

Fitness after chemotherapy (Guest post)

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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.

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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.

body image · fitness · gender policing · Guest Post

Breast cancer is turning me into a man. And I’m kind of okay with that. (Guest post)

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I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and since then have had a double mastectomy and two courses of chemotherapy that have left me breastless and bald. For a woman who had large breasts and long hair, it’s been a big change. But I’m finding I’m strangely comfortable with my new appearance, shocking as it may be to others.

I’ve written on this blog about how I was really looking forward to my double mastectomy, and I followed up with this post after my surgery about how much I love my post-mastectomy body. The latest change in my appearance came from my chemo. My hair started falling out three weeks after my first treatment, and was a patchy mess when I went in for my second. Shortly afterwards I had a friend buzz my remaining hair off with barber’s clippers, leaving me bald.

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I thought I was ready for it (I’d had the same friend buzz my hair in a very short pixie cut before my chemo started), but it was still a shock. Bald heads are a sign of maleness in our culture; very few white women willingly go bald, and are considered outliers if they do. Long, thick, shiny, straight hair on women is prized by people of European descent. The few times in my life when I’ve purposefully cut my hair very short, I’ve been chastized for it, by both women and men. Bucking the cultural norm is definitely not okay, and even makes news.

And yet I really love my bald head. Many of my friends have commented that my skull is a nice shape. The artist in me thinks I’m more beautiful than I’ve ever been in my life, since going bald. I love looking at my head, and touching it. Part of me wishes I could keep it bald, even after my hair starts growing back. It’s so easy to care for, so minimalist.

My struggle has been going out in public since losing my hair. Until recently I was still working full-time, as a fundraiser for a nonprofit. I felt physically well, but didn’t want people to assume I was sick. (I figured they’d guess I had cancer as soon as they saw the bald head.) Before my first business meeting after my hair was gone, I vacillated: should I wear a scarf on my head? A hat? Did I need to explain my appearance? To be honest, most of the time I forget I look different – I still feel like the same old me on the inside.

(The business meeting? I wore a hat because it was cold out, but took it off as soon as I got inside. I explained that I was doing really well physically. It seemed to be a non-issue.)

Then one night I was passing by a mirror in my apartment, and caught sight of myself out of the corner of my eye. I was shocked – I really looked like a man. To be honest, I thought looked like my dad, who had been bald. My mom affirmed it when I posted this photo on Facebook.

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For many women going through breast cancer treatment, this part – losing the external signs of womanliness – can be very hard. At every step along my cancer journey, health care professionals have assumed that I wanted to mitigate this loss with prosthetics and wigs. And I’m not diminishing that need that some women may have. But I’ve been very clear with myself and others since my diagnosis: if anything, I want to be the poster girl for normalizing the realities of breast cancer treatment. I want it to be okay to be breastless and bald if you’re a woman. I want it to be okay to work through illness, if that’s what you want to do. I want it to be okay to be who and what you are, to be flexible in the moment, and do what you need to do to be well and whole (be it a take a nap, or go for a walk, or have a good cry.)

But I can’t deny it’s been fascinating – and a little disconcerting – to explore the emotional and spiritual landscape of ambiguous gender appearance. I feel like our culture has become more open to considering gender identity since celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have shared their transgender experiences. But each of those celebrities seems to have settled on a gender appearance that puts them very squarely within the norms of their identified gender. I wonder if society is ready for people who are openly gender-ambiguous, even if only in appearance.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m a woman and I love being a woman, but I’ve been wondering what it would be like to live the rest of my life in the No-Man’s (and No-Woman’s) Land of asexual appearance. Where I could be mistaken for a man (or transgender, or a lesbian) sometimes, and that would be fine.

I also wonder if I would feel differently if I were younger, or in a relationship with a conservative partner. Maybe part of my comfort with ambiguous gender appearance comes from being near menopause and single – and happy with both of those conditions. I was already knowingly entering a part of my life where my appearance and desirability were becoming less important. I’d heard from older women that you become invisible after “a certain age”. That didn’t seem like a bad thing to me. There’s a reason that contemplatives take a vow of celibacy – the pursuit of sex takes up a lot of energy. What if looking gender-ambiguous saves me from superficial and superfluous flirtations and drama? What if I can focus more time on my work and my creative projects? What if I can have more authentic relationships where people look past my exterior and value the person I am inside?

Part of me still worries about being labelled strange, however. About being ostracized for being different. If I were another 10 years older, I would laugh it off, because by then I’d be facing my 60s, and I know it really wouldn’t matter what I looked like. But I’m finding I’m thankful for activities like aikido, where everyone (male and female) dresses the same for practice.

Honestly? Breast cancer isn’t turning me into a man – it’s turning me into a pre-pubescent girl. (This will become even more true when I begin taking hormone-blocking drugs after my chemo.) And if I remember correctly, my 10-year-old self was pretty awesome. Who could complain about that?

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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.

Guest Post · health

What martial arts is teaching me about fearing death (Guest post)

death head, art journal page, September 2005

I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and had a double mastectomy in September. Now my doctors are recommending chemo and radiation to reduce the chances of my cancer coming back. If this is a war, I’d better win, right? So I’m turning to my martial arts training for guidance on fighting. And – surprisingly – making peace with death.

One of the reasons that cancer scares us is because it can kill us. But when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t worried about dying. I read that the overall survival rate from breast cancer was good. And I was going to be one of the survivors, obviously.

Then one of the lymph nodes removed during my double mastectomy tested positive for cancer. Funny how something so simple can change everything.

Before I write anything else, let me say that my odds of surviving five years are still quite good. I have Stage 2 breast cancer. I haven’t been handed an automatic death sentence. My cancer is curable. But as I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the implications of all of the characteristics of my particular disease (lobular, invasive, pre-menopausal, hormone sensitive, five tumours – the largest 4 cm, one positive lymph node), and I’m being asked to make decisions about the next steps in my treatment, I suddenly feel like a gambler playing Russian roulette with my own life. What are my odds if I do this treatment? What if I don’t do this one? And do the survival numbers even mean anything, anyhow?

And… lately I’ve been thinking about the possibility of dying from cancer.

Some people would say that’s a bad thing. Don’t think about it, and it won’t happen. Don’t “go gentle into that good night.” Be a warrior. Be a survivor. Beat cancer. Whip its ass.

Thing is, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life – however long that may be – fighting. Call me crazy, but I want to actually live my life. I want to love, and laugh, and play, and make things. Do good things. Make a difference. And I’m not sure I can do any of that if I’m in constant battle mode.

I met with my radiation oncologist this week, and was disheartened to learn that the cancer found in my lymph node, while small, had been penetrating the lymph node wall. Which might mean that the cancer was spreading beyond the node before it was removed, and that the surgeon left cancer cells behind.

I hadn’t considered that. As far as I was concerned, when they cut off my right breast and took out that positive lymph node, they got rid of all my cancer. Chemo was going to be a formality for me – an insurance policy that might even be kind of optional.

Now I suddenly feel like I may have a time bomb ticking inside my body. Can the bomb be disabled? Will it go off someday? When? Am I going to have to spend the rest of my life worrying about something that may not even happen? If I choose not to have a treatment now, because it promises to only marginally improve my odds of dying from breast cancer, but later end up getting breast cancer after all, will I kick myself for not having done everything I could do?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t live like that. I’m a worrywart. A ruminator. Throwing cancer fear into my head and letting it steep for the next thirty years would be a horrorshow.

“Today is a good day to die.”
~ Worf, Star Trek: The Next Generation

My aikido Sensei talks a lot during our classes about the Japanese samurai tradition, and one thing he’s mentioned over and over again is that the samurai warriors were trained to live as though they were already dead. That made them fearless in battle, because they had nothing to lose. Within the context of recreational 21st-century martial arts training, being “already dead” means being unafraid to face your attacker, and “entering” the attack, or proactively moving forward to meet your attacker’s strike. (I talked about this in my blog post about how martial arts taught me to fight cancer.)

Lately I’ve taken Sensei’s words even further, and have been meditating on the idea that I’m truly already dead. I’m finding there are some real lessons there about not fearing death.

Let me start by sharing that I’ve lived extended periods of my life thinking about death. My brother killed himself 18 years ago, and in the aftermath of his suicide I was plunged into a suicidal depression myself. I spent the next 10 years dancing with depression and suicidal thoughts, and while it’s been many years since I’ve been in that psychological pit, it’s left me with a lasting sense that death is not all negative. Death can be a comfort – a release.

In the days leading up to my double mastectomy, I started thinking about death again. I proactively got all my financial affairs in order, recognizing that there was a very small possibility that something might go wrong during my surgery, and I might die on the operating table. I got my last will and testament witnessed by close friends. I made some notes for my family about my wishes for my body, and the kind of memorial service I’d like to have. I looked around my apartment at all my unfinished projects, panicked at thought of trying to wrap everything up, then realized that it would be somebody else’s problem once I was gone.

My father died of cancer two years ago, and it was a hard death. He was very sick, he suffered for a very long time, and his dying was ugly and awful to watch. I’m not deluding myself into thinking that death is always easy.

On the other hand, I’m adamant that I don’t want to tie up my physical and emotional energy into the need for a cure. I will not “lose” if I die from cancer. I won’t lose if I die in two years rather than 20. I will lose if those 20 years are bitter and fearful. If my quality of life is diminished by worry and despair.

I’ve probably got this whole samurai thing wrong, but here’s what I’m thinking: Screw fighting cancer. I’m already dead. Sometime, somewhere, somehow in the future, I’m gone. I don’t know when it will be, or how it will be. But here’s what I want: to live as fully as I can today, to do my best, and not waste my time on things I can’t change.

Do not look upon this world with fear and loathing. Bravely face whatever the gods offer.
~ Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido

 

Update: After I drafted this blog post, Sam posted this link on Facebook. Great post on the same theme (“I’ve been diagnosed with life and so have you”); I wish I’d been able to say it that eloquently.

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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.

Illustration: Death head, art journal page, wax crayon and ink on paper, September 2005

body image · fitness

Loving my post-mastectomy body (Guest Post)

Michelle Lynne Goodfellow - September 2015

So I was diagnosed with breast cancer this summer, and had a double mastectomy in September. I’m crushing this cancer thing so far. This blog post is a follow-up to three posts (about how I learned to fight breast cancer from doing martial arts, was super excited to be getting my breasts cut off, and had a boudoir photo shoot before my surgery) that I wrote this summer about my breast cancer, sports and body image.

If you’ve read my story, you may be wondering if things have panned out the way I anticipated. Am I still feeling upbeat about my diagnosis and prognosis? Am I as happy as I expected to be without breasts? Do I love my new body?

Yes, yes and yes.

According to the medical professionals involved in my treatment (nurses who’ve assessed and tended my incisions; my surgeon; my registered massage therapist), I’m healing at a blisteringly fast rate. I have nothing to compare my experience to – I’ve never had any other surgery. What I know for sure is that I don’t feel held back in any way since having my breasts cut off.

I had a few very short (seconds-long) moments of panic before my operation, but they passed as soon as I noticed them. I was calm (and bored) while I waited in “surgical daycare” (yes, that’s what it’s called) before my noon-hour date with the knife. I remember being pretty nonchalant immediately after I woke up from the anesthetic.

They sent me home about three hours after I left the operating room. I was cared for in the week following my surgery by my mom and a dear family friend.

The pain was bad. I will say that. I have a pretty high tolerance for pain (I barely noticed when I broke my collarbone and dislocated my a/c joint last fall), so I expected the surgical pain to fade quickly. Many women I’d spoken to had been able to quit their narcotics within three or four days of their mastectomies. That wasn’t my experience. The pain was an excruciating, burning sensation that covered a large area where my breasts used to be, and the narcotics they gave me didn’t touch it. (I stopped taking any kind of painkiller after about a week, since nothing seemed to help.) The pain was worse when I stretched or moved, so I became very tentative about moving too vigorously, and I couldn’t bear to be touched around my incision, or even wear tight clothing.

I sought help for the pain twice, but the doctors didn’t seem to have anything to recommend. They kept telling me to wait and see if the pain got better. Thankfully I have an excellent registered massage therapist who does myofascial work, and with my surgeon’s okay I started massage treatment 2 1/2 weeks after surgery to work on the tissue adhesions and restrictions around my incisions. I experienced an astonishing reduction in my pain after only one treatment, and after my second treatment was almost completely pain free. I would highly recommend myofascial work to anyone who’s had surgery. There are still many numb areas across my chest that may never recover feeling, but they don’t bother me.

The surgeon gave me exercises to do after surgery to help with the range of motion in my arms, and I had good range of motion within a week of surgery. The massage therapy has helped with range of motion as well. With my surgeon’s okay, I resumed my aikido practice two weeks after my surgery, and was immediately doing full practice with full contact and advanced breakfalls. I’ve lost nothing in terms of strength or stamina as far as my aikido is concerned. It’s been very physically and emotionally healing for me to do aikido, and I feel blessed to be able to continue with my practice.

I started a new job two weeks after my surgery, and have regularly been putting in 10-hour days, trying to accumulate some lieu time before my chemotherapy starts. Quite honestly, most days I forget all about the breast cancer. Life is good.

And I absolutely love my new body. Going through life without breasts is easy. It was an adjustment at first to see myself in the mirror – I look so different. I lost 40 pounds in the five months before my surgery, so I literally have a completely different body now that my breasts are gone. Plus I got my hair cut before surgery, so that I could donate it pre-chemo. It’s taken a few weeks to figure out what kind of clothes I like to wear now, but that part has been fun.

I’m not looking forward to some of the more troubling side-effects from chemo, but I won’t mind losing my hair. I’m more concerned about feeling weak and tired, and possibly having to give up aikido for a time.

My odds of surviving cancer aren’t the very best they could be – I’m pre-menopausal, had an invasive cancer that was sensitive to estrogen and progesterone, had five tumours in my right breast, the largest of which was 4 cm, and one of my lymph nodes tested positive for cancer. But I’m so happy to be alive right now, in this moment. I’m going to die someday; whether it’s 25 years from now or 25 months from now, I don’t want to waste my time worrying about how I’ll die.

I want to walk in the sunshine when it’s sunny, and dance in the rain when it pours. And flip upside-down, unharmed, when I’m thrown.

___

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.

Guest Post

Guest post: Philosopher Charlotte Witt on “Livestrong”

orange kayak on car roof

Before being diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2013, I was a physically active person, who enjoyed yoga, dance, biking, kayaking and also went to the gym regularly. Although I was no athlete in my pre-cancer life, it was shocking to find myself in a wheelchair unable to breathe or to walk as a consequence of chemotherapy induced pulmonary embolisms and atypical pneumonia. Once I pulled through the crisis I decided that regaining my range of physical activities would be the central focus of my life after treatment. Accordingly, a week before the end of my daily radiation treatments, I went back to work and I joined a Livestrong program at my local YMCA. (http://www.livestrong.org/) The Livestrong program provides free exercise coaching and YMCA membership to cancer “survivors”. Free is important because no matter how good your health insurance is, cancer is very expensive in the United States. I put the word “survivors” in quotes because the term implies a terminus of treatment, which for many Livestrong participants is ongoing, and because it suggests the equally mistaken idea that survivorship is a permanent rather than a temporary status.   Approximately 30% of people diagnosed with primary breast cancer will develop metastatic breast cancer.

 

I knew that I would not last long in a typical breast cancer support group, which would inevitably turn to spiritual theories, embarrassing self-disclosure and mind-numbing advocacy for all things pink. I thought things might go better in an activity based group whose members would understand the particular challenges of post-cancer fitness. For example, there is the wig problem. I would not be able to exercise in a wig; it would be too hot, it would move around, and it could not go in a ponytail. Also there was the difficulty of finding appropriate exercise gear for a prosthesis, and, indeed, finding an appropriate prosthesis. On top of these novel logistical challenges was the simple fact that I had not exercised for almost a year and had spent several weeks in a hospital bed. One day in bed is equivalent to a week of inactivity. I needed a group where when you miss a session and then show up explaining “I’ve been sick, but not really sick” they all get it. I could not imagine returning to my pre-cancer hot yoga class among all those apparently healthy and apparently perfect bodies or to dance class where every eye is on the mirror.

 

I had not anticipated two aspects of the Livestrong program. First, the informative presentations on topics like “The 10 Keys to Longevity” by so-called experts turned out to be riddled with misinformation about the causes of cancer and cancer medicine.   I was enraged by the implication that proper diet or exercise or stress reduction could have warded off our cancers and amazed by the hubris of the speakers and their fact-free speculations.   But I was equally dumbfounded by the sheer bravery and physical determination of my peers, several of whom had had multiple cancers, recurrences and damage or side effects from treatment. I took to heart the example they set, which combined the importance of optimism about the future with full immersion in the present moment.

 

Alas my story does not end triumphantly with a triathlon “for the cure” featuring a Livestrong team finish, although that would make for a nice narrative arc. My return to health and fitness BCE (before the cancer era) remains a goal rather than an achievement. It is taking longer, requiring more work and greater determination than I had anticipated. There is fatigue; there is pain, stiffness and lack of mobility in my arm.   There is residual weakness and discomfort from chemotherapy and radiation, and I still have neuropathy in my feet. My sense of balance has not yet returned. And, I am still unable to engage fully with two of my favorite pre-illness activities, biking and kayaking because of the threat of lymphedema if I lift anything over 8 pounds on my mastectomy side. So the simple task of loading my bike or my kayak onto the car has become a potentially dangerous proposition. These are all reminders of my illness that won’t be going away anytime soon. However, there are some unexpected gains.   Now, I am directly aware of the stubborn courage of those who are active despite whatever limitations they might have. And now I am able to experience the sheer pleasure of walking or running that is probably only available to someone who has been unable to walk or to run. For the time being, these gains will have to substitute for a triathlon finish or a race for the cure.

 

Charlotte Witt is a philosopher who lives in Maine.