Climbing the mountain I felt like I was walking on clouds…and surprisingly, that’s not as pleasant as it sounds. It’s almost like there was a disconnect between my feet and the ground. If I didn’t watch where I was stepping, I would feel myself losing my balance. Stairs were particularly precarious.
And yet, that day, I climbed. I climbed up a mountain and onto my yoga mat.
It was May 2018, and I had just completed my tenth round of chemotherapy. One of the drugs in my chemo cocktail, oxaliplatin, causes peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage that starts in the hands and feet), and ten rounds in, the constant pins-and-needles sensation in my feet had progressed to include numbness and balance issues.
But I saw an event posted online for a free mountaintop yoga class, and I was determined to go.
Six months earlier, I had been diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer at age 35. I was in my second year of a PhD program, and as upsetting as this unexpected diagnosis was, I was determined to not let it derail my life. I missed the last week of the fall semester for surgery to remove part of my colon, and then two weeks before the spring semester began, I started a 12-round course of adjuvant chemotherapy. I continued as a full-time student throughout treatment, taking classes Monday through Wednesday and receiving my infusions every other week from Wednesday through Friday.
While taking classes during chemotherapy was not always easy, I definitely felt that keeping my body healthy during this time period allowed me to “bounce back” quickly after each round. I practiced yoga almost daily, often even doing a gentle practice on days I was home connected to the chemo pump. I took walks and hikes with my husband and our dogs whenever I felt well enough to get out of bed—and whenever the temperature was not too cold to further aggravate the neuropathy.
Exercising was not something I started because of cancer, but cancer did change my perspective on exercising.
A two-sport athlete in high school, I remained active as an adult, though admittedly a regular exercise routine was often sporadic due to prioritizing jobs that required long hours. I was a healthy weight, but had spent the previous 15 years always wishing I was just five pounds lighter and a little more toned.
Ironically, in the year prior to my diagnosis, I was able to exercise more frequently thanks to my flexible schedule as a graduate student. The fact that I was working out more actually caused me to miss what turned out to be a symptom of the cancer growing inside me: weight loss. I dropped those stubborn five pounds…and then I dropped 10 more, until suddenly, without even really trying, I weighed less than I had since junior high.
Exercise also provided a clue that something might be wrong with my body. While I had been experiencing stomach cramping for months (and had seen a primary care doctor, who told me it was “probably” IBS), one week I suddenly struggled to make it through an exercise class I had been attending for months. That, along with some other symptoms that increased around the same time, prompted me to schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist, who ultimately ordered the colonoscopy that saved my life.
As I started chemo, my oncologist wanted me to gain weight, which I was able to do through diet on my off-weeks from treatment. Exercise, for the first time since high school, became less about wanting to stay skinny, and more about keeping my body healthy and strong. Now, when I step on the scale, I am less concerned if the number goes up a pound or two. I worry more about seeing my weight start to drop, as I know it could be a sign that the cancer has returned. Instead, I view exercise as a way to improve my health and even potentially reduce my chance of recurrence, since research has shown exercise is beneficial for colorectal patients in this regard. Whereas for much of my adult life I prioritized work over exercise, now, exercise takes precedence. And while it’s certainly an item on my daily to-do list, I also enjoy it and find that it relieves anxiety and stress—a definite need for any cancer patient.
So on that day in May 2018, I headed up the mountain. I had to focus on my feet as I hiked, and I wasn’t quite sure how yoga poses on the uneven ground would go, given my balance challenges. But I did it. After the hour-long class, I felt triumphant.
Empowered. Free. If I could hike the mountain that day, it seemed, I could do anything—including beat cancer.
One year later, I was back at the mountain, literally and figuratively. In February 2019, my cancer progressed to Stage IV, with tumors metastasized to my liver. I started another course of chemotherapy, and was cleared for surgery to remove the right lobe of my liver that July. Two weeks before my operation, there was another mountaintop yoga class. And of course, I was there.
Putting one foot in front of the other. Moving from pose to pose. Showing my mind and my body exactly what I was capable of. And, it turns out, that includes living an active, full life…even with Stage IV cancer.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://elephantsandtea.cdn-pi.com/contact/submissions/.