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How the Breast Cancer Walk Changed Me

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Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH - Blogs
By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistOctober 28, 2019

In the early morning darkness, a downtown street usually filled with cars was a sea of pink. It was surreal. Hundreds of us, women of all ages and backgrounds, united to cheer breast cancer survivors now healthy enough to lead us in a 2-day walk. 

I was struck by the enormity of the moment. And I was thankful to witness the pride and love with which these women walked. 

In the days since the Breast Cancer Walk, I’ve reflected on how much I gained from the entire experience – both in the weeks of training leading up it and during the walk.  

I gained a different perspective

Unlike many of the women around me, I don’t have a personal connection to breast cancer. I was there to honor all women who battled cancer and those yet to be diagnosed.  

I joined a team organized by an amazing neighbor honoring her mother who is a breast cancer survivor. I knew that a portion of our fundraising would directly benefit breast care services for women without insurance at the clinic where I volunteer. 

Though I had been motivated to join my neighborhood friends to help the women I serve in clinic, until the walked started, the real meaning had felt abstract. In clinic I help screen women for breast cancer – I see them before the cancer diagnosis, before their world turns upside down. I don’t see them in the midst of their treatment when it’s most challenging. Seeing the survivors lead us in the walk gave me faith that our efforts were worthwhile. 

I found that fundraising wasn’t so hard – and it invited others to share their cancer experience

I wasn’t looking forward to asking people for money, but I was surprised by how generous and open my friends and family were. A woman I grew up with that I call Auntie and who has known me since I was a baby reached out to donate. She shared her story on the donation page -- she lost her mother at a young age from breast cancer. I could feel the loss across the screen. I never knew that about her. It was a moment of recognizing that this woman who has cheered me on throughout my life had experienced deep pain of missing her mother. I wouldn’t have known this about her if I hadn’t signed up. There were others who reached out as well. It turned out that, though I hadn’t thought of myself as significantly touched by breast cancer, I knew 6 people directly whose lives were changed with this diagnosis. Not being able to help them had upset me more than I realized and contributed to my motivation to walk. 

I learned that it’s doable

When I signed up to walk 20 miles, I was nervous. That’s a long distance for someone who exercises but is by no means an athlete. I was skeptical that I would keep up with my training schedule or that I could complete the walk. I kept it as simple as I could – each week a mix of 3 days of walking, 2 days of strength training, and 2 days of rest with abundant pre- and post-walk stretching. 

The schedule was key. I like to check things off my to-do list, so it motivated me to find pockets of time. Since it’s an all-day walk, I counted the steps I was getting throughout each day. That helped! At work when a friend wanted to take a break, I'd suggest a quick walk. I easily added 1-2 miles to my total each time I could do that. And on the weekends, rather than sleeping in, I woke up at my usual time and was able to get in several miles by the time my kids were returning from their cross country or swimming practices. 

It gave me a chance to have deeper conversations

I scheduled a few training walks with the neighborhood women, anticipating lots of laughter just like on our girls nights out and at our kids swimming and basketball events. I got so much more! The long walks were long -- 10 miles – which made time for conversations that went well beyond the superficial chit chat. I don't mean to suggest we had deep philosophical conversations, but rather, when someone said they were busy -- I listened to the details of what was keeping them busy. We shared stories about what our lives had been like before we moved into our neighborhood. It was wonderful! 

I also did some training walks with my extended family and with coworkers. Today, after all of that walking and talking, I feel even closer to the people I had already felt connected to, and I made new friends, too, which was a pleasant surprise. 

I became stronger mentally

The walks were great socially for me, and that made me happier. But I spent plenty of my training time alone, and that was pretty incredible too. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and in my quest to find green, shaded areas to walk, I found a park close by that I hadn’t explored before. On one of my early walks I forgot my headphones, so I was disconnected from my usual array of podcasts. The silence in my head was disconcerting for a moment, but then I settled into it and realized the quiet walks were good for me, the way yoga and meditation are. As I walked through the woods, I felt the stress and anxiety of everyday life rolling off. With all the exercise I added to my routine, I slept more soundly, awakening more rested. 

I became stronger physically

I walked around 200 miles in the 8 weeks before the big day. I can’t believe it, I’m not an athlete and I never have been. This was the first time I put myself on a training schedule, and it was good for me. Every week I could tell it was easier for me to walk longer and faster. Also, my recovery time got shorter and shorter. I could walk, stretch, and then move on with my day without a Saturday afternoon nap, which I had needed at the beginning! My appetite did rev up, but I stayed strong and didn’t eat more than my usual. I didn’t lose weight, but I didn’t gain any either. And I did lose inches as I toned up from the cardio and strength exercise. 

I’m sure I gained more from the walk then the breast cancer community gained with my fundraising. And that’s ok. The camaraderie I felt on this journey was profound and I’m happier and healthier because of it. My story today is to encourage you. If you have a moment of time and space in your life to volunteer for a cause - walk right up to it. 

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About the Author
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and a WebMD Medical Editor. She is on the team that makes sure all WebMD content is medically correct, current and understandable. She sees patients at the Women’s Wellness Clinic at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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