Saturday, December 17, 2016
Climbing Above Cancer
Last year, I wrote a post called Training for Cancer. My wife Cheryl had been diagnosed with breast cancer only a few weeks before. Challenging times were ahead. She’d face months of chemotherapy, surgeries both major and minor, a full course of radiation that resulted in burn-like wounds, and daily, constant stress. The chemo left her unable to eat without growing ill. She faced fatigue that no amount of sleep could overcome, when she could sleep at all, since, due to the surgeries, she could no longer sleep in her favorite positions. She lost her hair and toe nails. Every day when she looked in the mirror she had the reminder that a small cluster of her own cells was actively attempting to kill her. Life became an hour by hour fight to get through the cancer days, to get through treatment, and return to whatever was left of normal.
Of course, she went into this fight with a few advantages. She had supportive family, friends, and coworkers. She had good health insurance, and was being treated at one of the top cancer facilities in the world. She had far more information and understanding of her disease than the typical patient, since she’d spent over two decades working on drug studies, including studies of the drugs that she would be treated with. Of course, her knowledge was a double-edged sword. She knew the drugs she’d be on had been proven effective, but she also knew that effective, when you’re talking about chemotherapy, doesn’t equal a guarantee.
She had one final advantage. A few years ago, we’d both committed to exercising more. For whatever weird reason, when we made this resolution, we somehow stuck with it. There’s a training program called Couch to 5k, where you build up from being a couch potato to running a 5k. We went from the couch to 5k and kept going. We walked, ran, hiked, kayaked, and, of course, biked. We did a psychologically important 50 mile ride on my fiftieth birthday, the first time we’d ridden that far, and after that we just kept pushing ourselves. Could we do 60? 75? A hundred? Yes, yes, yes.
When Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was as fit as she’d ever been in her life. Just a few months earlier, she’d pedaled for twelve hours to cover 100 miles. When the cancer came, they do tests of your heart to make certain you can withstand the rigors of treatment. Her heart, of course, was in excellent condition. But if we hadn’t spent the last couple of years exercising? Maybe not. Before we started our exercise regimen, Cheryl had numerous health problems associated with poor diet and a lack of exercise. She was on medicine for her blood sugar, her cholesterol, and her blood pressure. By the time she received her diagnosis, she no longer needed these drugs.
Pre-exercise Cheryl would probably have been too sick to do much once her treatment started. But cancer didn’t face off with old Cheryl. It instead found itself up against bad-ass century ride Cheryl. This Cheryl just rode right over cancer, and kept on rolling.
No matter how sick Cheryl got, she was always thinking about when we could get in our next bike ride. She no longer had the stamina to ride a hundred miles in a day, or even fifty. But we did a lot of shorter rides, five, ten, twenty miles. By the fall, she was building back up to thirty and forty.
Cancer slowed Cheryl down, but it didn’t stop her, and we have the numbers to prove it. We use a program called Endomondo to track our exercise, using GPS to record every mile we bike, walk, and paddle. In 2015, the year when she was diagnosed with cancer in November, she’d travelled 1250 miles. In 2016, the year when she was struggling with chemo, radiation, and fatigue, she’s logged 1275 miles, and still has two weeks to go.
This week, she had her last infusion of drugs. Every possible test they’ve subjected her to finds no trace of the cancer. She’s had a model response, and a 90% chance that the cancer won’t return. Of course, with cancer, it’s a waiting game. You can never truly say you’re cured, only that, at this moment, there’s no sign of the disease.
What we can say is that Cheryl won’t be sitting around on the couch waiting for it to return. She’ll be outside, a dozen miles out on a greenway, or paddling across a lake, or climbing up a mountain. Today, she took a celebratory hike, climbing to the top of Hanging Rock in icy wind and dense banks of fog, to wave a victory flag.
Life offered Cheryl a reason to exercise less. She took it as a motivation to exercise more. Cancer couldn’t knock her off her feet. She’ll keep moving, because movement is life.