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.