Right before I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I was the fittest I had ever been in my life. I ran almost every day with my golden retriever and played soccer with my husband on a co-ed soccer team (I was terrible, but I blew through 500+ calories with every game). In fact, it was being hit with a soccer ball that sent me to the nurse practitioner who found my spreading cancer.
Screeching to a Halt
A week after the mass in my abdomen was found, I had surgery to remove all my internal girlie parts along with my tumors. When I woke up, my pain level was through the roof. Every movement was excruciating for weeks. Forget running. I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom without help. Exhaustion --from healing and constant anxiety about the future -- made simple trips to the store difficult. Once treatment began, neuropathy soon made my feet so painful (a bruised feeling) that I could hardly walk. I spent my days sitting or lying down, and very soon, everything ached with stiffness.
At the start of treatment, survival was the only thing on my mind. I didn’t care about looking fit or keeping my weight in check. But I was quickly reminded that exercise does more for me than keep my clothes fitting. It helps things move within my body: food, blood, intestinal gunk. It reduces stress by upping serotonin levels. And it keeps my muscles from stiffening and cramping.
I’ve met some ovarian cancer warriors who still ran marathons around their treatments, but I could hardly step without cringing. So how could I exercise?
A Word of Caution
Before you start or continue any exercise, you absolutely need to check with your oncologist or nurse. My body changed tremendously after diagnosis. It was battling my cancer with toxic chemicals, and I no longer knew what might do me more harm than good. Your docs and nurses and physical therapists can guide you.
Exercising While Lying Down
I started with the only exercise I could do lying down: yoga. There are all types of yoga, from cardio to meditative and everything in between. So if you try a seated yoga class and it just doesn’t work for you, try a different class. There are videos online, often for free.
The slow yoga I did during treatment gently stretched my muscles and moved things in my body. I’ve heard it said that yoga massages your internal organs, helping them function. And with all the chemo dripping into me, I needed to keep my organs functioning as best as I could. Sometimes all I could do was turn slowly in my chair, but even that helped push food through my intestine and kept my back flexible and less likely to cramp.
One trip to the garden supply store proved to me the value of my yoga. My 4-year-old daughter and I were walking amongst the potted plants when I slipped on a thin sheet of water. I fell forward, catching myself on my hands, my back arched, before I sat down. If I hadn’t been keeping somewhat flexible, I could have wrenched my back. Instead, only my pride was hurt.
Cardio While Sitting
My mother had a recumbent stationary bike, which was perfect for me to do without putting too much pressure on my sore feet. I started slowly, just 10 minutes at a time. I read while I peddled to keep the boredom away. Slowly I increased the time, helping my heart and stamina.
One Step, Two Step
As my internal scrapes and stitches healed, I was able to get outside and walk. But my feet were still horribly painful with nerve damage. I bought a larger pair of walking shoes, so they didn’t squeeze my feet. I walked as lightly as I could. No stomping for me!
When the pain was too much, I’d stop and lift one foot behind me and then switch. If I’d worn pink, my neighbors may have mistaken me for a pink flamingo.
When steroids lessened the inflammation in my feet, I could walk longer, which helped my heart and stamina. If you’re just starting out, go with a friend, or make certain to have your cell phone in case you need to call someone to come rescue you if needed. I did call home a couple of times.
When I finished chemo, my friend, who is an exercise trainer, came over and helped me begin the process of rebuilding my strength. Sloooooowly. My muscles cramped easily, and I was weak. She had me stop often to hydrate, which helps prevent cramping. Little by little, I grew stronger and more confident. It took a while for my injured nerves to grow back, but now I’m back to doing regular exercise sessions. (I love Body Fit by Amy on YouTube).
When you’re going through treatment, exercise might not be high on your to-do list. But you are “in it to win it,” and keeping your body moving in some fashion will help you feel better and help your body deal with the cancer-fighting medicine. How you move your body is one way you can take control of your life when everything feels like it’s out of your control. It not only helps you physically but also mentally. And keeping yourself as healthy as possible will help you win this war.
Photo Credit: Lina Bruins / EyeEm via Getty Images
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