I told a friend at the beginning of 2016 that I did not feel like a cancer survivor. Cancer and its return lurked behind every bush and in every dark corner. There was a good reason why I wore my pink bracelet. My activity level or lack thereof had reached new lows. I had created a whole new category below ” sedentary ” in which the simplest of household chores was an effort. I had been creeping around like a very old person. My anti cancer meds made me exhausted. This was no way to live life. In my mind I could run like a gazelle, stride across the golf course and walk up steep steps and around medieval hilltop villages in Europe. But the reality was very different and I hated it.
By some minor miracle, the turn of 2016 saw a modest uptick in my energy level, enough that I embarked on a transformation of my life. I needed to become a different person and the likes of which I hadn’t met before. I needed to become an ultra fit and healthy person and my behavior needed to be congruent with that of a healthy person, even if there was going to be a mega dose of “Fake it till you make it”.
The first thing I saw was everywhere in my house, there were reminders of my cancer.
Vast stores of bandages to combat the many months of drains in my breast; remedies for the 21 different side effects of chemotherapy; piles of Get Well cards; baskets of cancer books, scarves, wig care, you name it, I had it. Every drawer, every surface there was something. Cancer had invaded my life. So one Saturday morning, I began to clear the signs of cancer out of my house. I took out trash bags, many of them. Of course, cancer will never be completely out of my house because I live with some permanent side effects like neuropathy and lymphedema, but at least it does not scream at me. My home is no longer the house of a cancer patient. I declared myself now a healthy person who needed to get fit again, and who wanted to design a busy, fulfilling and active lifestyle for herself. I had no evidence that I would be successful, and it was an act of faith.And that is when the transformation started taking place.
Even though it was the dead of winter, I had no excuse. Exercise equipment lay gathering dust in the lower level of my house, eying me reproachfully when I heaved my reluctant body downstairs to change the cat litter. That was the only time I went downstairs. The first thing that happened was I started to use my Pilates machine again encouraged by my teacher. I remembered how good it felt, but I was frustrated at the ground I had lost over nearly 2 years.
One day I sat with tears rolling down my face. Cancer had robbed me of so much of my life. First my husband and then me. And I watched a video which said the biggest reason that elderly people went into assisted living was they lacked the strength to get up and down from the toilet. The maker of the video said strength training could add years to the quality of your life. I did not long for quantity, as truth be told I was lonely on earth without my husband at my side. But I did long for quality.
When you start moving and exercising after such a long hiatus, it is truly baby steps. I huffed and puffed up and down the stairs in my house, increasing the number of sets as the days rolled on, and I cursed the arthritis in my knees. My first venture onto the treadmill was 2.5 minutes at 2 miles an hour. The second lasted 5 minutes and I was sweating. I sat with rinky dink 2 lb weights doing arm curls while I watched TV and used a hand gripper to strengthen my grip while I sat. And I stood while watching TV rolling my foot on an evil little gadget which was like an abacus with wooden spikes, in an attempt to lessen my foot neuropathy.
I had a goal which was to travel again and enjoy walking around sightseeing in the summer of 2016. I wanted my 70th birthday in June to be a joyful celebration of health and not the first step into God’s waiting room. I intended to lose weight, I did not want to continue to be overweight, but in truth, it was the fitness was going to make the real difference to the quality of my life. However, I did have weight loss goals. I joined Weight Watchers and I attended meetings after I realized I was far more likely to succeed with some morale support. It was clear that with now taking of Femara ( Letrozole) to prevent my cancer reoccurring, that I would have to fight weight loss every ounce on the way down, despite impeccable clean eating, which now included banishing the last vestiges of sugar from my diet. I was embarking on a new and different fight for my life. But I come from a generation of grit, courage and determination. I had conquered cancer with the help of a team of wonderful doctors. It was now time to help myself. And I had five months before leaving on vacation.
One of the things I had to learn over and over again was patience. By nature I am a type A personality used to accomplishing things at a break neck pace. Cancer had been humbling as recovery had been slow. Now I faced another slow process. The scales were only going to move downwards in their own time, despite impeccable clean eating on my part. Not for me those magical 4 or 5 lb losses that other people could boast of achieving in a week. I clawed my way down an ounce at a time. Likewise, fitness doesn’t happen overnight just because I had set a new goal tor myself. I had to remind myself constantly that all worthwhile goals take time to achieve. There were days when that scale would seem as if it was glued to the same position, that my mind would cry out that it had to be lying. Weight loss couldn’t be THIS hard when I was sticking to the WW program without cheating. But for my body, the challenge was a hard one and I kept forgetting that I was taking meds, which was of course making the challenge even more intense. But be clear I never used my medication as an excuse to give up or stop cracking the whip on myself.
In the spirit of true confessions, my body and fitness level were in a real mess when I set out on my transformational path. I did not dream of walking the Appalachian trail or the Camargue, and running or walking a marathon never entered my mind. Mine were humbler goals, more to do with every day living and adding some enjoyable activities which required some physical effort. There was no place in my body that you could press without my crying “Ouch” and I had long ago forsaken having a relaxing bath at night as I was truly and justifiably afraid that I would not be able to get up again out of the bathtub. Every simple household chore was a decision. It always involved resting a while and then going again. My body was not in continuous motion. It was almost always still. I tell you this so you get a very truthful idea of my starting point. It was not something that made me proud.
But even a tortoise can creep forwards. After getting most of the reminders of my “pink life” either tossed or neatly stowed away, I embarked on another kind of house clearance. I did keep my favorite wig if only to to remind me that I had a wonderful full head of hair again.Apart from some cleaning help, nobody had crossed my threshold in over a year. Quite different from my normal sociable way of being, which quite routinely included having friends over. I am by nature a very clean, neat person who prefers an uncluttered home. The less obvious remnants of cancer was the accumulation of all sorts of stuff, including canned and jarred food stuffs with sell by dates which reminded me that I had not been really cooking very much in the last two years. I felt very ashamed at the wastage of food. But as I moved forward with determination,
each garbage bag of trash, was a victory, and a breath of fresh air as I could stand back and admire my efforts. My home was returning to my version of normal, and had always been a place where I smiled when I crossed its threshold. I was starting to smile again while knowing there was a long way to go.
The first modest victory to be celebrated was when I received that first 5% weight loss charm from Weight Watchers. It took me nine weeks and a great deal of concentrated effort to get there. I was losing at about half the rate which I would have expected before cancer and the medication I was taking to prevent its return. However, I was now proving it to myself that with grit and determination, plus a large dose of patience, this battle could be won! I settled in for the duration. I found new ways to cook to maximize what I could eat in a day, I got and received support on Facebook from those embarking on a similar journey. I resolved to cook ” clean” but enjoy my food and satisfy my taste buds. This meant being creative with herbs and spices. It also meant portion control and wiser menu selections when eating at a restaurant. My standard restaurant rules were no bread, no wine and no desert. I asked waiters when I wanted the cooking of my dish to be modified and I abandoned being a member of the “clean plate club”, and on occasion took food home instead of woofing it down in one sitting. I tried to avoid becoming obsessional, but I certainly had to do careful meal planning in order to keep my eating within acceptable limits.
As I grew in energy, I embarked on a second wave of house clearance. This one involved about 20 trips up and downstairs and more than a dozen large and heavy trash bags being hauled to the curbside. Inside the bags were my late husband’s papers and a myriad of other stuff that when I looked at it, I could not think of any earthly good reason why I should be wanting to hang onto. There was something enormously liberating and freeing by doing this. I would open every drawer and closet in the house and waves of shame would come over me. Out of date food packed the shelves of my pantry, a testament to my lack of cooking in the last couple of years; kitchen gadgets I had bought impulsively and never used; and then there were the clothes. Well those were going to be the subject of a later clearance once I had regained the youthful figure that I could now only dream about.
A few weeks into this process, it became clear that this transformation was laying the groundwork for a new and very different chapter in my life. I had survived the ” seven years of lean” which had included caring for and watching my husband die of brain cancer, financial misappropriation of funds in my company, my own breast cancer and the eventual sale of my company to avoid bankruptcy. I had been stripped of everything that was near and dear to me; love, health and wealth. There is something very humbling to be be stripped of so much. There is never an answer to “why me” but the question had been haunting me lately, was I going to let my past define me or rise once more like a Phoenix from the Ashes? I share this with you because this clearance in my house, the determination to rid my body of all its “fluff” was something deep in my deepest core that I was shouting “This is enough, and no more”. I looked at photos of myself some twenty five years earlier and my eyes filled with tears. The face was of a beautiful woman so innocent of all the pain and tragedy that lay ahead of her. Perhaps it is best that we cannot read our own futures. But now I had the opportunity to define a new chapter in my life.
At the end of 2016, I had managed to achieve a level of transformation in my life that in retrospect I could see as quite remarkable. I had to tear down a number of self defeating beliefs to get there which I write about in another article. And I did have an outrageous celebration of my birthday in Rome. But by the end of the year, I was a different person. But I did not get there overnight. I am no longer a victim of cancer, I am a survivor, vibrant, and living life to its fullest. Stay tuned. My journey is not over.