An unusual door

Wow, it’s been five months since my last post. Crazy how time flies when things are going well. Not that they aren’t going well now.

As a writer, there are times you feel the need to be quiet. There are times you feel the need to speak out. I’ve never been one to say something unless it’s worth mentioning. As a journalist, one of the things I dislike the most is filling pages when it’s a slow news week (since I work for a weekly paper). It’s like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Something I’ve done many times – and rarely enjoyed.

However, today, I fee like I stepped into a new chapter – it’s worth mentioning.

I entered the fitness world (industry) through an unsual door. Melanoma.

I’ve always been active. Growing up on a farm does that to you. You don’t sit still for long and that is not a bad thing.

I’ve been a runner since I was a teen and discovered I could cover a mile faster than most other kids my age. I was hooked. Suddenly I had an identity.

Yet, through my young adult, early parenting years and beyond, I ran because I needed that fix. I didn’t run, didn’t work out, to be fit.

Enter melanoma. And immunotherapy treatment that did crazy things to my muscles and joints, but ultimately (I hope) saved my life. But I never stopped. That wasn’t in my nature. I slowed quite a bit, but never stopped.

I joined Beat Cancer Boot Camp and loved it. I remember thinking early on how it would be so cool to lead this some day. Then my physical therapist, Colleen, asked me to sub for a class, and another, and another. She asked me if I would lead an extra class during the week.

How could I not? This group, this boot camp, showed me the importance of whole body fitness, not just running. This bootcamp gave me strength, support, camaraderie, in a world too many of us have come to know – cancer. We can talk, joke, support, make fun of each other, because we have all been down the same road whether it’s breast cancer or melanoma. It doesn’t matter. Cancer sucks no matter where it strikes.

Going back to Colleen’s request to lead boot camp – despite my years of running, I didn’t feel qualified to lead a fitness group. So I fixed the situation and became an ACE certified group fitness instructor.

Which in turn lead me to the Mukwonago YMCA.

Through an odd chain of events, I applied to the YMCA, got hired, went through several training sessions (even in the midst of diverticulitis – not a good idea, but maybe for another post), and subbed for my first class tonight.

I admit I was nervous. Don’t ask me why. Probably because I was subbing for a class that required rhythm and grace (cardio barre – what was I thinking? – a runner, a farmer, a writer/photographer?), which I usually lack. But I know strength and endurance and fun and admitted to my shortcomings and did the best I could.

What I loved the most was the people – connecting with the people.

In boot camp, it’s easy because I am one of them. I share my cancer story. I share my hope. I serve as a role model. In turn, I hope I can help them achieve the benefits I’ve discovered by being fit (extra fit) after a cancer diagnosis. I hope I can help them realize strength they never knew. I hope I can help them live life fully because they are fit and active and vital.

That’s something everyone can aspire to. Even members of the YMCA who come to a class because they haven’t exercised in forever and there is this wedding coming up and exercising on their own just isn’t working.  Or they take a cardio barre class despite admitting to having little coordination (high-five, I’m there with you and I am leading the class).

So my metastatic melanoma diagnosis lead me to become a group fitness instructor at the YMCA. Isn’t that a crazy path to follow? That’s how I’ve introduced myself in group exercise instructor training sessions. It makes heads turn and grabs attention. It’s the truth.

I wouldn’t be working (part-time) for the fine organization of the Mukwonago YMCA if it had not been for my melanoma diagnosis. Ok, so there was more to it than just that, however, melanoma lead me down paths I never thought I would travel.

I’ve stepped into the fitness industry through an unusual door. I have much to learn and am eager to do so. In turn, I hope I can share some of that with many others. Especially those of us with little rhythm or grace, but much heart. Especially those of us beating cancer.

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Boot camp

I never thought I would like, let alone own camo clothing, That is until boot camp. Up until then, I wouldn’t have owned anything camo had it not been for my oldest son’s wedding when all the girls wore camo tanks to get their hair done.

After one of the leaders for Beat Cancer Boot Camp – Wisconsin hurt his knee, I started leading sessions in his abscence…and bought camo paratrooper pants (very comfortable I admit) in the process.

I stumbled across BCBC while going through physical therapy after surgery to remove lymph nodes for metastatic melanoma in 2013. My therapist, Colleen, was (is) amazing, and she brought BCBC to Wisconsin a few years ago. It was the flier in the ProHealth physical therapy office that caught my attention.

Years before I was diagnosed, I had been covering an event (I’m a photographic journalist) where I saw something about a cancer boot camp. I remember thinking, “Boot camp would be so cool,” but I didn’t ‘qualify’ as I had no cancer. Be careful what you wish for.

As a runner, I joined BCBC to stay strong and become stronger, since melanoma and Yervoy were knocking me down a few pegs on the fitness ladder. What I found was a support network, a community that empowers cancer patients to become strong, that supports each other, that allows us to talk freely about our journeys (if we want and usually during coffee after Saturday morning sessions) because everyone there understands what the other is going through.

The beauty of BCBC is that every exercise is offered at different levels, depending on where each person is at in their cancer journey, yet the regime is based on Navy SEAL training. While most of the participants are cancer patients, along with a few cancer therapists; BCBC is open to family and friends of cancer patients.

When I started BCBC, I was going through Yervoy treatment in a clinical trial. While the side effects with Yervoy are not as severe as some other treatments, inflammation is right at the top as one of the biggest challenges I faced, magnifying muscle pain to an intense burning sensation.

During that time, I could barely jump or run without pain or much discomfort, yet I refused to sit idly by and wait for treatment to end. Incorporating some of the boot camp exercises into my daily workouts, I became stronger and probably more overall fit than I had been before my melanoma diagnosis.

As the BCBC slogan says, it’s “for strength, for health, for life.” I am no longer exercising to complete a certain distance during each run. I am exercising to add miles to my life. I am exercising to gain overall fitness, not just running fitness. I am exercising for a strong heart and a stronger head, knowing every ounce of muscle gained, is that much more for fighting cancer.

Moving away from my last treatment in July 2014, inflammation continues to decrease, allowing me to participate more fully in each session. When asked to lead some sessions, I’ve gained a new perspective standing in front of the group.

I see the different levels. I see the different struggles. I want participants to know it wasn’t that long ago, I struggled too. I hurt, sometimes even cried in pain. I pushed on. I want each participant to see that they have the potential to do the same. I want each person to know that the best version of themselves is one push up, one plank, one crunch away and you can build on that each day, each week.

BCBC troops are brave, bold and will do more than survive. With boot camp, we will thrive. And proudly wear camo.

Miles fighting melanoma

My oncologist only laughed and shook his head when I told him I planned to run a half-marathon three months after my last Yervoy treatment. I’m not even sure he considered my lack of preparedness for this race, his response was so quick. He laughed and shared stories of his wife’s determination, as a new runner, to run despite injury. He knew better than to argue with me.

I knew better than to go into this race with the intent to break a personal record. My only intent was to finish. Inflammation and neuropathy had caused me to stop running over the summer. I was happy I could walk and tried to convince myself that this too shall pass, but many times I wondered if it would.

Following prodding from the research nurse, I went to physical therapy, which produced almost instant results. Granted, I was still a long way off from 13.1 miles, but the pain was lessening. Slowly I began to add jogging into my morning walks, until I was jogging more than walking.

By the time I was released from physical therapy a couple of weeks before the half-marathon, I could run most of up to four miles, with only occasional periods of walking. To triple that distance in a couple of weeks is not the best advice for runners.

I had never gone into a race feeling this ill-prepared, but I constantly reminded myself, that I could walk as much as needed to finish. However, when out on the course, it’s not that simple.

Starting slow, I watched as many runners passed me, where on my better days, I would have been doing more passing until I settled into a pace. I consciously had to tell myself to listen to my body, to not push too hard and too fast. Going through the first four miles was like any of my daily workouts, but by miles five and six, burning started in my left foot, a sure sign that things were out of alignment.

I walked. I stretched. I walked. I watched still more runners move ahead of me. Doubt began to form in my mind. I knew I could walk the rest of the distance, but walking felt like it was taking forever!

Coming to terms with my limitations, I had no one to race against other than myself. I had to listening carefully to what my body was saying, since my brain was screaming a completely different message. Watching the miles tick off after the halfway point, I moved as fast as my body would allow, knowing if I pushed beyond that limit, I would undo weeks of physical therapy.

With one mile left, I didn’t want to walk any of that last mile. My daughter, who had finished ahead of me, came back to meet me, cheering me on for that last stretch.

I finished strong, which is what all runners hope for. As I crossed the finish line, I glanced at the clock, surprised that I finished faster than I expected.

There was no record-breaking pace. My time was 21 minutes slower than last year’s race – in the midst of treatment, but at the beginning of the onset of neuropathy and inflammation – and 26 minutes slower than my fastest time from two years ago.

Two years ago when my daughter and I ran our first half-marathon together, I blazed ahead of her. This year, she took the lead, bettering my fastest time by a minute. We both looked at our times this year and immediately set our goals for the next race.

I could have easily sat out this race, but that would be letting melanoma get the better of me.

Running gave me identity as a teenager. It gave me endurance through life. It gave me a bond with my children, something we could do together now as adults, each at our own pace, but together. There was no way I was letting anything get in the way of that bond.

Funny enough, my recovery from this half-marathon was the best I’ve ever had – because I listened to my body all along. The strengthening from physical therapy has made me a better runner.

Cancer is strange like that. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to you, yet it can give you benefits you would never have reaped without going through the battle.

With luck and training, perhaps I will smash my personal record next year. Regardless of finishing time though, every race I get to run with my family, is a blessing and a treasure. A faster pace is simply icing on the cake.

Empty bags

It used to be that I multi-tasked with the best of them, juggling several projects outside of work, numerous ongoing, work-related projects, and family. I sorted my life into bags with each aspect stuffed into a different bag so all I needed was to grab the appropriate bag(s) and I would be set for the day.

Now multi-tasking tires me – the thought of it tires me. I’ve wrestled with the little voice that shouts lazy, no ambition, sloth. I’ve battled with the demon that doesn’t care about things I once sought with passion. I’ve emptied bags as I simplified my life wondering if they will be filled again.

But the truth is, there are times I don’t mind the singularity of doing one task at a time. I’ve come to enjoy nothingness and rest, yet I wonder if this is the new reality or just a blimp on the radar that will move out with the next front. And when it moves out, will I be able to multi-task again? Will I want to?

When I struggle through treatment side effects where simple concentration is a monumental task, I wonder if clarity will return. It’s no wonder a single task is the best I can do when my brain feels shrouded in fog.

I can’t imagine my pride would ever allow me to become lazy, however, I have welcomed the empty bags. They were getting too heavy to carry much longer.

There is beauty in singularity. I’m enjoying the peace that comes with added simplicity. The only thing I would like to fill those bags with are memories and priceless moments with those close to me. Those bags will never be too heavy to carry.