I’ve started this post at least half a dozen times since I started my blog. It seems odd to be writing my love letter to working out when the most strenuous thing I’m up for is walking. My left arm is still a little immobile from phlebitis. I have a leukapheresis catheter in my chest that I have to be careful with, and I have a blood clot in my lung that leaves me winded after a flight of stairs. My hemoglobin is low, so I’m often and easily tired. I haven’t been able to work out for nearly a month, since before I went in for the last round of high-dose chemo.
Yet I still feel strong. Throughout the treatment—and now, more than ever—I’ve been drawing on what I’ve learned from my workouts and my yoga practice.
Physically, I did get some compliments on my blood pressure, at the beginning of treatment. Years of trying to perfect the savasana “dead body pose” in yoga helped when I had to stay perfectly still for scans and my radiation mold measurements. I will have to stay in good cardiovascular shape, especially as all this chemo and radiation takes a toll on the heart and the lungs.
But I think I can say that without yoga and fitness classes, it would have been a lot harder to get through all of this mentally. While I thought I was building muscle and flexibility, I was actually becoming stronger in ways I didn’t realize.
In December 2013, when I noticed a small bump that turned out to be two dislocated ribs, I was irritated that I’d have to modify my fitness routine for a month or two. That, of course, has turned out to be more than a year, since those ribs were dislocated by Hodgkin’s lymphoma tumors. I’ve had to take time off from working out, adjust my routines and generally change everything.
In between treatments, when I receive the OK to work out, I do what I can. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it, but when I think about how working out has helped me overall, I know that it is. The muscle tone will come and—in the next few months especially—go. But the benefits go way beyond that.
Change is often difficult, but it’s possible. This was probably the first thing I ever learned. I’ve said this before, but I’m not naturally a physically active person. I was a chubby kid and always the last person picked in gym class. Very last—after the kids with asthma and injuries.
It wasn’t just that I wasn’t fit—I’m also extremely indifferent to any kind of sporting competition. That won’t change. I will spend 10 minutes agonizing over a Scrabble word, but I lose interest in winning any kind of sport immediately. You want the ball? Have it. The promise of being left alone is enough for me to surrender. The opening scene to the old MTV cartoon Daria, where she refuses to hit the volleyball and her teammates eventually collide to cover for her—that is pretty much the animated version of me in gym class.
Yet I started working out on my own in high school, first with Cher’s A New Attitude step-aerobics video. (Her outfits are pretty fantastic.) I discovered I kind of liked working out, and eventually found other things I enjoyed—yoga and fitness classes. I’ve tried to make working out part of my everyday routine. Even though I skip a few days, intending to work out every day helped me to at least do it about five days a week.
I’ve also never been a morning person, but managed to become someone who regularly woke up at 5:15 or 6 am to go to yoga or boot camp class. I found I enjoyed this thing called morning, which I’d avoided for years. Also, it was helpful to roll getting out of bed and working out—two things I tend to put off—into one fell swoop of determination. So the night owl and the last person picked in gym eventually learned to be the early bird at class.
The hardest part is what makes you stronger. Those last few seconds in standing bow or being in a plank sometimes seem impossible. That’s when the instructor usually says something encouraging like, “These last few seconds are where the change happens!” Or: “This is the hard part, but here’s where you’re building strength.”
I’ve thought about these words a lot as I near the hardest part of my treatment. A few months of dislocated ribs turned into six months of chemo, which turned into more than a year of chemo and another three to six months of recovery. The most difficult part still lies ahead. Heading to yet another appointment or sticking on an AquaGuard over my chest catheter before showering, I’ve cried and declared, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and sometimes, “I can’t do this anymore.” I’ve been sliced open and poked and poisoned for a year now, and I’m tired.
But I don’t have a choice. I’ve learned that just when you think you can’t do something anymore, that’s when you need to power through. It’s time to cue “Eye of the Tiger” and do this. The hospital bedside yoga and laps around the floor, dragging my chemo pole with me, will be my one-armed Rocky pushups. Right after the stem cell transplant, I’ll be physically weak and in a bit of a mental fog, but overall, tougher.
Patience. At this point, after a year of treatment, I’m impatient to get this over with already. A month in the hospital seems like an eternity. But I know that things always seem longer at the outset. Sometimes it’s just 45 minutes of boot camp or an hour-and-a-half of Bikram yoga, when I’m not feeling particularly ready to push myself. Every now and then, in the first few minutes, I despair. How am I going to make it through 80 more minutes?
But I do. I had the same feeling when I signed up for a 30-day Bikram yoga challenge. When I marked off those first few days, the month stretching out before me seemed so long.
I have to be patient. I have to draw on the patience that comes from working on the same 26 poses in Bikram yoga. Or the patience from a Kundalini breathing exercise. I can do this.
Encouragement and support go a long way. Almost every day that I’ve worked out or attended a yoga class, I’ve been told that I could do things that I often didn’t think I could. (Sometimes, I felt absolutely sure I couldn’t, but did it anyway.) Eventually, I started to believe it. That’s been helpful for when I’ve had to endure being poked for multiple IVs that give me the heebie-jeebies or sit still for another round of tests.
People in classes have always been supportive—and that also extends beyond the fitness center and yoga room. I’ve met some great friends through working out, and I’ve received such nice messages from my boot camp pals, people I’ve met through yoga and the barre3 community.
Once I finish my hospital stay, I know it’s going to be a long time to regain my physical strength. I’ll be easily tired, and it will be months before I even get back to “normal,” before I can even think about working out. But thanks to fitness and yoga classes, I have the strength, patience and support that I need until I am back to 100 percent.