Get In Shape After Cancer: Dos and Don’ts
September 3, 2016
Hey guys! This week I’d like to talk about getting into shape after cancer. I believe this is a much more holistic topic than just getting a gym membership and lifting weights can cover, so I will be dabbling into a few important factors of physical wellness. But before we jump into things, let me tell you a little story about my first go at getting back into shape post cancer, and the disastrous results that followed.
During my first week back to school my senior year of high school one of my friends invited me to go to an after school workout club with her. I had spent the entire year prior receiving chemotherapy, surgery, and bed rest. Needless to say, I was ready to be done and back with my peers. My cancer was finally in remission and exercising sounded like the next step to getting my physical health back. So I accepted.
Well, the next couple of hours were not pretty. Pull-ups here, pushups there, try this with weights, hold this 30 seconds longer…etc. I stumbled around the room trying to complete the circuit of exercises so well executed by all of the seemingly healthy, strong, and fit girls around me. I had always been able to keep up before; these were the same girls I had run around the playground with as a kid. Somehow I managed to push myself hard enough to make it through the entire workout—though thinking to myself the whole time that if cancer wasn’t going to be the end of me surely this would be (maybe that’s a little dramatic).
The following week was even less pretty than the workout. My arms were not just sore but in severe pain. I couldn’t fully extend or bend them and I started to notice a progressive swelling around my elbows. I took ibuprofen, iced my arms, elevated them, and did everything to nurture sore muscles that I used to. And my efforts were doing nothing!
After a trip to the ER, I learned that that one workout had resulted in a severe case of rhabdomyolysis. Essentially my muscles had been so traumatized by those seemingly harmless exercises that they started releasing a bunch of proteins into my blood stream. It is the same condition that super old people can get when they fall onto their hip or something and it can be potential fatal! Maybe to some it would be common sense that jumping right back into things wasn’t the smartest but with the little knowledge I had about fitness in my new condition I truly thought I was doing my body a favor.
Now, I’m not trying to scare anyone, nor tell anyone that if they do those exercises immediately after treatment they will have the same result (I’m also not a doctor I’m just sharing my personal experience). I do, however, believe that this is evidence enough that our bodies can be in fragile conditions after undergoing cancer treatments. With that being said I’d like to share some factors of getting back into shape that I have learned after years of research, trial and error, and personal experience. (Oh—and rest assured—the rhabdomyolysis went away after a few weeks!)
The mental factor
DON’T measure your progress based on how your body performed before cancer
I have harped on this in other posts, but as cancer survivors we have a tendency to compare ourselves to who we were before cancer. Just because we aren’t in the hospital getting treatments anymore does not mean we are miraculously transformed into who we were before. Comparing yourself to how strong you were before cancer can set you up for consistent failure. I, for one, will never be able to do a lot of the things I used to. I have said goodbye to running, jumping, ballet, and a number or other things. If I were to base my physical success on being able to run or dance like I used to, I would feel like a failure every single day. If we constantly feel like we’re failing, it is incredibly hard to find motivation to progress in our fitness goals.
DO measure your progress based on how far you have come since your last physical battle
We have a new standard after going through cancer. Some of us have lifelong changes, but that absolutely does not mean we don’t have an amazing road of recovery and transformation ahead of us. We will continue to have setbacks post cancer and every time a new setback enters our life we have another opportunity for progress. I understand that that mentality is hard to keep, and believe me I still get discouraged all the time. But keep in mind that it is ok to get discouraged and ok to grieve the ways our lives have been changed. We can practice acceptance of ourselves in the midst of those trials. Ironically that acceptance is what allows us to make the progress that we all crave and to see and appreciate that progress no matter how big or small.
The Social Factor
DON’T isolate yourself from positive influences
Two of the most common things I have found amongst cancer survivors that I have interviewed are anxiety and depression. When we deal with constant mental stressors such as anxiety and depression there can be a tendency to isolate ourselves. And when we isolate ourselves we are so much less prone to get out and be proactive about our fitness goals. This is one reason I have found that community in fitness is key.
DO find positive fitness role models and supporters and stick with them!
Finding and latching on to people with similar goals to you can be huge. I have befriended so many personal trainers, naturopaths, health enthusiasts, and athletes of different sorts. It is so much easier to stay on a healthy path when you have encouraging support! And not only that, people have incredible amounts of knowledge that can be useful to you. You can learn SO much from picking people’s brains, especially when they are passionate about things you want to understand better. Find a friend, a professional, a community, or all of the above that motivates you. If you don’t have that sort of support right now, get online and look for positive role models. If you resonate with me, that’s exactly what I’m here for. It is amazing what you can find if you just look for it! I have seen drastic changes in myself, my happiness, and my fitness goals based on the kinds of connections I have made in my life.
The physical factor
DON’T get back into things too fast
When I left the hospital had no idea what my body could and couldn’t handle. My surgeon (who is amazing, btw) couldn’t tell me a lot about what I would be able to accomplish physically. I basically based my exercises on what hurt and what didn’t. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I had the wrong approach when I was initially trying to get back into shape. I did a lot of things wrong before I started figuring out how to do them right. I danced a lot before cancer (ballet, modern…etc) and was so ready to jump back in when I got out of the hospital. It didn’t take long to realize that this form of physical activity was not helping my body. My leg would be in pain after class and I could really only execute maybe a fourth of the dance combinations. I grieved what felt like complete inability and I pushed myself to points that I was in pain. Little did I know that I was compromising my form by trying to force these exercises. There are better ways to approach physical activity after cancer.
DO ease your way back into exercises that are right for your body
After my own fair share of trial and error, I finally decided to consult with a professional. I was put on an exercise plan that was so much more mellow than I had let myself get away with before. It was hard to start small, especially when I was in the peak of my athleticism when I found out about my cancer. The truth was that I had to sacrifice some of the things I used to do and start finding exercises that worked for my new body. If you are like me and your body has been altered by your treatments, whether it be through surgery, chemo, radiation, or anything else, it is important to strategically find exercises that help and do not hinder your body. The most important forms of exercise I found and have stuck with (after trying many) are carefully chosen gym exercises, cycling, and yoga. I have come to a point where I truly enjoy these forms of exercise not just because they are fun, but because they make my body feel good. There are exercises out there for everyone, we just have to find them! Even if it’s something simple, if we experiment we can find ones that we enjoy and work for us in our individual conditions.
The food factor
DON’T fill your body with food that hinders you
Everybody makes different choices concerning nutrition when going through treatment. I know many people that ate really well to optimize their health. I, however, would eat anything I could get down, no matter how weird or unhealthy the craving. There was a phase during my chemo that I only wanted to eat in-and-out cheese burgers, and so cheese burgers it was! I was a 5′ 10” sixteen-year-old that weighed 115 lbs, had little tolerance for food, and really couldn’t afford to not fulfill my cravings. However, when I got out of the hospital the struggle was no longer a lack of appetite, but a lack of energy. Fulfilling my every craving was no longer a lifestyle that suited me. I needed to fill my body with good foods to get my energy back!
DO make mindful choices on what you eat and how it is affecting your health
In order to combat my extreme fatigue I went to a DO in Jackson Hole and got a personalized food tolerance blood test. I eliminated a number of foods and after not too long I started seeing some really significant increases in my daily function. I couldn’t believe the difference! It was amazing how much it changed my quality of life. I highly suggest that you guys make educated decisions on what you put into your bodies and how those things are affecting you. All of our bodies are unique, but there is so much research out there to figure out what is best for us individually. We cannot maximize our physicality if we only take into consideration our exercise habits. Our bodies need good fuel in order to be active. So find out what works for you!
Anyway, there is a lot more that can be said about getting back into shape post cancer. These are just a few key things that I have encountered and want to share with you all. My body can do so much more than my doctors ever thought it would be able to and that is not just because I got to the gym and started throwing weights around. It has taken dedicated work and focus to get to where I am today—and I still have a lifetime of work ahead of me. There are always things we can improve on and new goals we can set but what is most important when trying to get into shape is that we maintain balance between our physical, mental, and emotional wellness. When we get out of balance in one area, it will manifest itself in another. So be gentle and patient with yourselves and allow yourselves to make slow and progressive steps in the right direction and in the right order. Listen to your bodies. Don’t beat yourselves up for not being able to accomplish the same physical challenges that you did before cancer. All in good time! Your body might need to take a new path, but that path can bring just as much if not more fulfillment to your lives than you ever knew before cancer. Keep pushing and I will be here cheering you on!