Today I showed up for my running club’s second run for the cross country season. A gently undulating 7.6kms through bush trails and roads. A year ago, I weighed 18kgs more than I do now and I had just committed to starting a regular exercise regime of walking daily after many years of inactivity. Within three weeks I was jogging and walking from tree to tree, or the next letterbox, or that light pole up ahead. A few more weeks and I didn’t have to stop to walk anymore. This weight loss may have helped me discover the cancer or it may not have. I will never know.
I have run over 1500kms in that time and have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve since had two surgeries and am one third of the way through my FEC -D chemotherapy regime that will finish mid July. The year ahead also has a course of radiotherapy that will last five weeks and there will be more surgeries back in the big smoke with the surgeon and then I will start on my five year course of hormone therapy. But today, I feel totally comfortable with a 7.6km bush run. I have a lot to be thankful for. I didn’t run this course a year ago, because back then walking 4kms round the streets was a real struggle. But my ‘future self’ kept whispering to me to persist with it.
Running while on chemo is a bit like having all of your reserve tank taken away. It’s akin to dragging a tyre or carrying extra weight on your body. I am fit and comfortable, I am just slower than normal and I can’t accelerate or pick up the pace as I used to be able to. I have less red blood cells to carry oxygen, I feel this on the hills. And there are the effects of the drugs on my heart. The most surprising side effect is that today many actually gain weight while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. This is due to the combination of anti-nausea drugs that allow people to continue to eat, the use of steroids in the anti-nausea regime, and the general lack of exercise due to being ill or recovering from treatment. (Shhhh, don’t tell the running handicapper about the steroids. I might be DQ’d.)
I’m a little slower than last year, but that’s okay. I am doing it and the benefits of continuing to run and walk where possible through chemotherapy far outweigh the risks. There has been a fair amount of research on the topic of exercise and breast cancer. Exercise has been shown to improve quality of life, improve self-esteem, reduce fatigue and reduce rates of recurrence. There will likely be times when a walk will feel like a marathon to me and other times when running feels fairly normal. The trick for me is to make sure I do enough to be of benefit to me through treatment, but not too much.
Today, I’m caught between feeling like the old me and feeling like a person being treated for cancer. Now that the head hair is gone, my appearance is putting me into the second box in the eyes of everyone I meet. It amazes me how a bald head screams cancer. But I feel absolutely fine and I don’t need to run the shorter courses which has been suggested, and I am taking it easy and listening to my body.
What frightens me most is the possibility that some people think I might die from this disease. You can feel it in their approach or glances. There is the constant reminder that breast cancer is serious and the threat of it is never far from my mind. Fortunately on many of the days in each of my three weekly chemo cycles the person with cancer doesn’t exist. Except for the bald head, I mostly feel like the old me. So I’m not going to let the bald head define my experience and I’m not going to lay on the couch and play the part.
There is a touch of sadness as I hear about all the goals other runners have for their year ahead. I had planned a great year of half marathons and a 70.3 Half Ironman Triathlon at the end of 2013. But all of that is just on hold. It is still inspiring to me to hear and read about all of the great things people are achieving.
Today whilst running, the sun was warm like that first spring day; surprising as we rapidly move towards winter. There was the joy of movement and breathing and there were interesting and varied textures to run over underfoot. There were different smells in the forest and hot dusty sections. The breeze swirling around my exposed ears felt wonderful. The sun on my neck felt warm. Sensations I have never felt having lived with with long hair for most of my life. There were birds chirping. There was wind, and at one point about 6km’s into the race a hill climbed gradually for 400 metres. Magically, the wind shifted behind me as if to say “I am here and I am offering you a helping hand”.
Being handicapped races, the slower runners head off first, and it is kind of comfort to know the rest of the field will at some point catch you and swoop you up and help you get home. I love that half way through my run, the fastest runners are only just starting and yet they still catch me. Today, I was nearly last in the field but none of that matters. I am out there doing it.
There is the awesome comradeship at our club as the faster runners catch you and cheer you on as they fly past. Their feet don’t touch the ground and they get smaller and smaller as they race ahead into the distance. And there is the wonderful connections of chatting with everyone afterwards and watching the children enthusiastically participate.
The experience of running on days like this is life giving. There is a total mind and body dialogue that occurs. With cancer, there is a new doubt. As I run I am asking myself if I can do it? Or should I be doing it? And the answers are clear, yes I can and yes I should. There is too much to be gained.
On Mothers Day last year, Mr Cool bought me a pair of sneakers. It’s Mothers Day in Australia in a few weeks. I hope I get a new pair! These ones have carried me a long way in the last twelve incredible months of transformation and learning. If I feel well enough in two weeks I hope to take my bald chemo head for a run in the 8km Mother’s Day Classic fun run in our town which raises money for breast cancer, hopefully in some new snazzy sneakers.
You can register to walk or run this 4km and 8km event held on May 12th in regional towns and cities all over Australia at http://mothersdayclassic.com.au