It may be the last thing on your mind when you’re going through treatment, or recovering from it. It’s exercise, and it may be the best self-help you can do.
I’ve been out of shape all my life. I’ve always been over weight, to one degree or another. I never really participated in any kind of strenuous sport as a kid. The closest I got was church league basketball during high school. I was an awful little league baseball player. I was pretty good at bumper pool , though (we had a table in our basement).
Adulthood hit. I went to law school at night, working full time during the day. Law school was a huge time commitment. After graduation, I had so much more time on my hands. I decided instead of growing roots on the sofa, I’d exercise and lose weight. And I did. And then I stopped. And the weight came back.
Soon enough, cancer entered the scene. Most of my treatment was during the winter months, in not so balmy Connecticut, so even if I had the energy, going outside wasn’t a great option. After my autologous stem cell transplant and allogeneic bone marrow transplant, I went to the nearest mall and walked.
When I started, it was pretty humiliating. I remember just being able to walk from bench to bench, resting along the way. The grey and white haired ladies would speed past me, reminding me how out of shape I was. But, as time went on, I was able to skip a bench, then a couple benches, then I didn’t need any benches. When it got warm enough, I walked outside.
I craved normalcy when I was going through treatment, and walking made me feel more normal. I was doing something normal people did. If I had a hat on, I even looked pretty normal. I could easily judge my improvement by the increased distance or decreased time it took to walk.
There’s even some scientific studies establishing the benefits of exercise for those undergoing, and getting through treatment. The Lance Armstrong Foundation has teamed up with some YMCA’s across the country (maybe one near you) to help cancer survivors get in shape.
Check with your doctor before you decide to start an exercise program. Maybe he/she can make suggestions on how to start, where and how. A referral to a physical therapist may be a good place to start.
While in law school, my wife gave me a bike. After law school, I had a cushy government job at the time, which gave me lots of time to ride. After my first round of treatment, I figured cancer was behind me. In 2001, I bought a better bike so I could ride more miles. I relapsed twice the next two years, so I didn’t ride much.
Fast forward to 2004, when we moved to Bucks county in Pennsylvania. This has many beautiful areas and is a great place to bike. You can bike on the tow paths of the old Delaware Canal in Pennsylvania, or cross the Delaware River, and bike on the tow paths of the old Delaware & Raritan Canal. The tow paths have two big benefits. They’re not on a road, so you don’t have to worry about traffic, and they’re pretty flat. You can ride a road bike along the river too, or venture inland, and punish yourself with as hilly a terrain as you’d like.
In 2008, I got more serious about biking. One day that year, I biked over fifty miles. I rode the 45 mile, way too hilly, course of the Livestrong Challenge Philadelphia. When I ride now, I rarely go less than 30 miles. I try to ride twice a week. I still can’t say I’m in great shape. But with practice, and a decent bike, you don’t have to look like Lance Armstrong to bike long distances. Biking is the only form of exercise I’ve been willing and able to keep up.
I highly recommend it. It gives you a great feeling of freedom and accomplishment. You have to be careful of traffic, and lousy roads, but it’s great exercise and a great way to blow off stress. You can explore, and see, hear, feel and smell things you can’t in a car. You can’t smell the flowers (or road kill) in a car. You can’t feel the cool breeze coming off the Delaware River on a hot day.
The more you ride, and the longer you ride, you’ll want a better, more expensive bike. Thanks to E-Bay and Craigslist, you may be able to get a high quality, used bike, for less money. No matter what kind of bike you get, or how much you pay, you should consult with a bike shop to make sure the bike properly fits you. If not, you won’t be able to ride efficiently, and end up with aches and pains that may make you want to keep the bike in the garage.
If you do end up shopping for a bike, you should consider getting a recumbent bicycle. There are many different designs. For a long distance rider, it’s a much more comfortable ride, and you can look around and enjoy the scenery. I bought one last month. Though I’m still getting used to it, I think it’s a big improvement, overall, from my old bike.
Whatever you do, do something. Bike. Walk. Swim. Jog. Whatever works for you, and whatever you can keep up, do it.
Editors Note: Read more about recently released guidelines on exercise for people with cancer.