At 26 years old, I was at the peak of my physical fitness. When not at work, you could find me lifting weights in the gym, or outdoors running trails. My social outings consisted of tennis matches and wake boarding sessions on the lake. Being physically active was a part of my daily life, and that life was good. I had no idea of the storm that was brewing deep inside of me.
That summer, I began experiencing issues which I now realize were symptoms that should have warranted immediate medical attention. Things like extreme lower back pain, random bruising, dizziness, and night sweats were all completely ignored. Having just moved to Texas five months prior, it was easy to write off the issues as symptoms of my circumstance. I would tell myself things like, “Oh, I’m still getting acclimated to the heat and humidity down here”, or “I must have bumped myself at the gym yesterday or something”.
I disregarded the warning signs because there was no way these issues could be anything serious. In my mind, I was young, healthy, and fit. My entire reality came crashing down in an instant one fateful day the following autumn. After spending eight hours in the ER with a swollen chin, I heard the three words no one ever wants to hear – “You have cancer”. More specifically, I was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML). Luckily, my treatment initially consisted of targeted therapy instead instead of traditional chemo. I soon realized however, that this treatment came with side effects of its own.
The next six months were a blur. Life revolved around taking pills and weekly doctor visits. I tried maintaining a sense of normalcy, but it was not easy. While I did continue to stay active, the intensity and frequency of my workouts declined significantly. My energy was gone. My joints ached. Nausea was a daily battle. I persisted though, because I just felt better after getting in some sort of physical activity. Being active during this period positively impacted not only my physical health, but my mental health as well. Many early mornings were spent walking alone while giving myself pep talks along the way. I found a reason to be grateful during this time. That reason, which I told myself constantly, was, “at least you don’t have to do real chemo.” This mantra quickly lost its truth during my seven month check up.
Memorial Day Weekend is supposed to be a time of celebration. My 2012 Memorial Day
Weekend was everything but that. The latest lab results showed the targeted therapy was no longer working, and I had to start a chemo regimen immediately to prepare for a stem cell transplant. While everyone was out partying and enjoying barbecue, I was in the hospital preparing to start chemo. Distraught yet determined, I decided to not face this new reality laying down.
With a blessing from my doctor, I spent each of those first four nights in the hospital walking the halls as the life saving poison began coursing through my veins. The following seven rounds of chemo were pretty much all the same – as soon as the chemo started flowing, I was up walking the halls. There was no way I was going to let the chemo transform me into a shell of myself. And, it didn’t. My doctors were constantly amazed at how well I was handling the Hyper-CVAD regimen. My pain level was under control, my energy levels were up, and I was eating like a champ. I didn’t realize at the time, but existing evidence strongly suggests that exercise is not only safe and feasible during cancer treatment, but that it can also improve physical functioning, fatigue, and multiple aspects of quality of life.(1) I experienced all of this and much more.
Another important unintended positive side effect of my physical activity during treatment was my happiness – it flourished. One morning as my docs were making their rounds, one asked, “How are you always smiling and happy all the time?” It was a great question, and one I spent numerous hours contemplating as I walked those hallowed hospital halls. For me, the answer was simple. My reaction to the situation would not change the fact that the situation was happening. So, whether I lay in bed all day depressed and hating life, or put a giant smile on my face and walked around as if everything was fine, I would still be a cancer patient preparing for a stem cell transplant. This situation was a necessary step I had to take in order to have a second chance at life. When I thought about it in those terms, I could not help but put the biggest smile on my face.
As the final round of chemo wrapped and I headed down to MD Anderson for the transplant, I was ready to take on the world. MD Anderson was truly a special place to have a stem cell transplant. Not only were the doctors phenomenal, but they had two floors dedicated to stem cell transplant recipients. And, they encouraged physical activity. Upon admittance, I was told how many laps around the wing was equivalent a mile, there were stationary bikes in the hallways to ride, and we even had hour long group exercise classes three times a week. In what is normally considered an isolating experience, the teams at MD Anderson transformed the stem cell transplant process into more of a social one through the use of physical activity. They clearly know what they’re doing – research shows a positive relationship between social support and physical activity participation in cancer survivors.(2)
For me, the group exercise classes were awesome because they allowed me to hang out with my new transplant buddies while being active. The classes also set the guidelines for my continued participation in physical activity once the transplant process was complete. Through participation in these classes, I realized I was not as fragile as I thought, and I could do things like chair squats and resistance band exercises in addition to walking and riding the stationary bike to stay active. In the world of survivorship, this is extremely important. Many studies have demonstrated that physical activity after cancer diagnosis is associated with a reduced risk of cancer recurrence and improved overall mortality.(3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(8)(9)(10)
I’m a firm believer that my physical activity during treatment has allowed me to live a happier, healthier life. Throughout my treatment, one thing I realized was that I could positively affect things like my mood, pain levels, mental fitness, and fatigue just by staying physically active. This is an important lesson that I continually apply to my daily life. No matter how bad things seem, I know that if I just keep moving, it will get better.