Saturday, February 28, 2015

Physical Fitness by the Decade

In elementary school, I was the last one picked for any team sport. Rightly so, embarrassing as the memory is.  I was short, skinny, wore glasses and was terrified of flying balls.  Consigned to the outfield during baseball games, I sorted through emerald blades of glass looking for ladybugs.  If a ball did come rocketing towards me, (and I noticed) I ran from it, pretending the sun had blinded me, using that line even on cloudy days.  I did enjoy tetherball, mainly because of the satisfying sound of clanging chains on those occasions I managed to wrap the ball around the pole.  Still, I could only play with one particular, softer, deflated ball.  Any of the other four, and my hand and wrist would blue and swell.

I was a delicate flower of a girl, all of 45 pounds, with the heart of a timid lion.

1960s home exercise with Jack LaLanne

Fitness for females was not yet a “thing.”  It began on TV as Jack LaLanne tried to teach our mothers to do Jumping Jacks in between cigarettes and before cocktail hour.   I suppose there were women who jumped right along with him, but not in my world.  My mother wasn't about to spill her Manhattan.  As for her little girl, I had to wear a dress through my early school years, and it’s hard to be athletic when the boys might see London and France.

In middle school, I was a popular girl, for the one and only time in my life - except when it came to athletic endeavors.  Because I was liked, I was picked second to last – team still comes first.  Climbing ropes in the gym hurt my ankles, running sprints hurt my ego.  When the Sylmar Earthquake hit and our school gym was condemned, I was beyond thrilled.  In my youthful imagination, I dreamed I could take an extra English class or would get free time, but no.  They put us outside in the cold of Southern California, where we played volleyball for the rest of the year.

See tetherball and swollen hands.

The underwear we all wore in the 1970s.  Such pressure!

I did not turn into a jock in high school.  By then I’d moved North and lost my popularity so nobody forgave my lack of coordination.  Last again.  I hated it all: the teacher, the ugly one-piece powder blue shorts outfit we had to wear, locker rooms, my knees and skinny legs showing for mean girls to judge along with my Saturday worn on Tuesday underpants and mother-bought white bra.  I hated everything they made us do.  But as high school progressed, I started realizing I could rebel.  If we had to run a mile for the President’s Fitness Test, my friend and I would saunter, not caring if the president thought we were unfit.  Eventually, I found I could avoid sports and all that would happen to me is a D on my report card.  An acceptable trade, in my book.

I wasn’t going to college anyway.

Could you do Yoga in those clothes?

As you may have guessed, fitness has been a very minor part of my adulthood.  Growing up when I did, there was no hot yoga, no Lululemon. In my 20s, I never thought about it. Hell, I was poor, I walked to work, walked AT work.    Around age 30 fitness tapes started appearing.  Jane Fonda with towering curly 1980s hair and a leotard cut up to her waist was the queen of the VCR, encouraging women to “reach it, reach it” from every living room.  The overweight chose to dance to the oldies with Richard Simmons, forever in sequins yet still not out.  Living in a bottom apartment with a fitness nut above was hell, as everybody exercised at home.    New trends came and went, kickboxing, aerobics, dancercise - now Zumba and Hot Yoga.  Fitness became part of everyday life, gyms sprouted like zits across the landscape, water bottles became a fashion statement, workout clothes moved from legwarmers to today’s Senator-repelling yoga pants.

In my 40s, I realized that I wasn’t getting younger, and by now, the message that had started with LaLanne - that fitness was the key to healthy old age - was firmly part of our culture.  LaLanne was still around, now in his 80s and hawking juicers.  Although I was still extremely thin (a much better thing in your 40s than in your teens) and appeared to be in shape, I feared aging and decrepitude. I decided now was the time.   There was enough variety out there so that I could surely find something I didn’t suck at and which didn’t feel like a chore.  Turns out, I actually enjoyed lifting free weights.

Problem 1:  I still didn’t enjoy the gym environment, full of sweaty and grunting males, probably wanting to judge my underwear.  Problem 2:  I also didn’t see results fast enough for my ADD self, so gave the idea of being a bodybuilder up.

This is why it was called Curves

Still game, I did Curves, the popular circuit training course for women.  Stepping on a mini-trampoline, I hopped up and down to enthusiastic music for 30 seconds, moving on to a bike and pumping for 30 seconds, then again hopping up and down and moving on to the next machine.  It seemed incredibly stupid.  I quit.  My job was physical enough, and I was up and down and walking all day.  I was still enviably thin and looked younger than my age.  I could pass as healthy.

It was good enough.

Then cancer struck at 51, and I did chemo and slept for five and a half years.  When I woke up, I was weak as a ninety year old and in pain.  I want to live again but cancer has taken it all: my job, my energy, my strength, my appetite.  How do I get it back?

I found Triumph Fitness and started again.

My first day sent me right back to high school.  It didn’t matter that the other women in the class were all cancer patients and not going to judge my underwear.  I was, again, the worst in the class: I had the worst prognosis, I was the least fit, apparently the oldest.  But I signed a contract to stick with it, and at this point, I can't outrun lawyers.

Our first exercise was a very complicated one called Standing Up.

I’m not kidding.  We had to stand up straight, balanced, knees flexed, toes loose, shoulders back, core engaged, posture perfect.   It was very, very difficult.  I was sore all the next day.  I am not kidding.  I realized then how much I’d let myself go and how much this disease has taken.

We also had to march.  Stand up straight, lift knees and march forward, like kids in a band only without the instruments. My ankles buckled, and each step I stumbled to the left or right.  My balance was completely off, and I wasn’t able to take two steps in a row.  I couldn’t believe how bad it was; I was actually shocked.    If I’d gotten stopped by a cop and he asked me to stand up or march, I’d be in the drunk tank to this day.   We did many basic exercises that, had I known they were going to give me in advance, I’d have laughed.  “Really? They think I can’t side step?”

I can’t.

Or, I couldn’t.   Eight sessions later and I’ve found my balance.  I can march without falling.  Standing up is just standing up.  What was lacking was core strength.  I hadn’t realized how much that matters even in regular daily life.

I’m used to our gym routine now:  we start with planks and bridges and cat/dogs, then go out and do our floor routine, which is leaning push-ups, one-armed rows, squats and other exercises designed to strengthen bodies weakened from surgery, chemo, and fear. Cardio is next.  I walk on the treadmill, five minutes at first, now I’m up to ten at 3.5 miles per hour.  I try not to look at the women who run next to me, pony tails bouncing.   I feel inferior still, but while I can’t do what they can – could they have done what I have?   If they were where I’ve been, where I am still, they would be walking too, and I try to remember that.  At the end, we go in and do yoga type exercises, stretching, etc.  I’ve discovered I’m relatively flexible, one thing I’m okay at.

 I do this for an hour and a half, twice a week.

I feel much stronger after 8 sessions, and I am only 1/3 of the way through.  Is my pain gone?  No.  Is my energy better?  Sometimes.  Has my appetite improved? Sadly, no.  Is my body stronger?  Definitely.  The range of motion of my bad shoulder has also improved by quite a bit, and I have had days where the pain is mild to zero.   I am almost able to reach my nightstand.

I have a hitch.  My food intake hasn’t increased although my exercise has.  My body is out of fuel and the car is starting to stall.  This is a harder problem to solve than it sounds, (just eat, they say) but I must.

I now realize fitness is something that I need to incorporate into my life permanently, especially since I lead a sedentary lifestyle and likely always will.   My plan to do some yoga or pilates once this is done – one of our trainers, who is certified in working with cancer patients, has a studio.  While it’s not cheap, I will likely workout with her at least until I find something closer to me or find my own path.  For now, I need the crutch of a trainer.  I still have a central line, I still am on IV treatment, my caloric intake is extremely low, and I still need to think about lymphedema, so I’ll take it slow, with professional guidance.

I’ve often advised those who come to me asking for advice about their new diagnosis to think about their post-cancer lives.  Even though they are brand new and are worried about starting chemo and progression, I remind them to put themselves in the winner’s bracket until told otherwise.   For most, post-cancer will be a fact and they will be living as survivors, even though at the beginning they are certain they are the losers.  What do they want that to look like?   Do they want to be stuck in the life and fears of a cancer patient forever, or do they want to move on?  This disease can be the catalyst for change, if you let it.

But I said that in the comfort of my chair; with a mets diagnosis.   I never thought I’d have to take that advice myself.

Well, I now have that same opportunity.  It isn’t easy, and I doubt I’ll ever love to do anything physical.  But I understand, deeply now, how necessary it is.

I don't smile that much - yet.


For Sacramentans, Triumph Fitness is a non-profit, and costs money to run.  They are always accepting new cancer patients, and you do not not have to be a metster or have breast cancer to join. The only requirement is you have had some form of cancer and a release from your oncologist.  And if you have any extra dollars to donate, I know they can use it.

Don't forget to sign my petition requesting that Komen and other major breast cancer charities donate 50% of their funds to researchers for the, actual, you know....cure.


  1. You are so funny. i was born in 1959 and you have described my life here. I hated sports at school; I was useless at it all. I remember the advent of yoga etc. Yup, I tried and gave up those very quickly. I now enjoy 'tap dancing' (or tap jumping, in my case - I still appear to have two left feet). I'll never be Ginger Rogers, but it's fun and it's good exercise, and we all have a laugh at ourselves. And best of all, no-one gets to see my pants. My place of work backs on to a school, and even now, when I hear the teacher refereeing a game, or the shouts of school kids mid-game or bats hitting balls, it sends a shudder of horror through me, to remember those traumatic sports lessons in school and the humiliation of always being the last one to be picked. Ann in England

    1. Imagine my shock when I began working at schools and met the gym teachers - and they were NICE! I couldn't believe it. At every school, they were almost the nicest ones there. I could not reconcile that, lol. :)

  2. Anne, I am so glad you are doing this exercise program. My Onco doctors keep telling me how important it is to do them, in addition to the good diet. They say combining the two can lower the risk of recurrence. But you probably know a lot more than me on this subject. I have always been athletic - leading a varsity volleyball team in both high school and college, as the captain. Always loved sports and moved around like crazy as a child. However, after cancer, I am finding it very hard to exercise. It took two years after diagnosis to start doing little exercises. I am planning to join a spinning class soon and hopefully that would help me. One of the reasons is I am finding it difficult to breathe when I work too hard. Checked with Dr. and it looks like I have a vocal cord problem (a dead nerve). UGH! I want to get back in shape so badly. I am currently doing therapy for my back and it has helped me so much. I am more flexible with my arms. How did you inspire yourself to exercise? I need to commit to doing something everyday.

    Continue with the workouts - I am sure your body will feel better each day.


    1. How do I inspire myself? Well, when I realized "hey, I might be around a few more years" I decided it could only go two ways: I could sit all the time or I could take matters into my own hands and exercise. I no longer have a job, and nothing in my life that makes natural movement easy, so I have to go out and do something structured.

      I also know, as a metster, it is likely I will deal with active cancer again. When I think back to all I have been through, I know I couldn't do it again from the shape I'm in. So I want to get back to some sort of health so that if I do have to do another chemo or surgery, I have the strength to survive it.

      There is no magic, it is just what is best. I showed up to chemo, I can show up to an exercise class.

      Good luck.

  3. I was so well behaved about working our regularly when I was in early stage treatment. I am so bad at it in mets land. You are reminding me I need to get off my butt and get moving. :)

    1. It's certainly harder when you have that excuse "why bother." But indeed, we never know how long it will be. Treatment is grueling. We wouldn't do a marathon without training.....same thing. Good luck with it!

  4. I was last in line to be picked in elementary school gym class as well. But now I do go to a gym for dilapidated people - run by physical therapists - where I now do 1 hour of cardio 3x each week - on seated bikes and ellipticals because the treadmill is even beyond me. But my core is good, I have range of motion, I have balance, and more.

    And all my doctors are very pleased with my exercise schedule and all encourage it. It has helped me keep a lot of pain in control. I may not have lost weight due to other reasons but I do feel better overall.

    I congratulate you on starting your exercise plan. I think its absolutely wonderful.

    1. Good for you! I am amazed how quickly I saw progress and really, my shoulder is much, much better and I never thought that would happen. Even PT didn't help but this has. Keep it up!

  5. I never got chosen for sports, I was too short for volly ball and I always threw the bat into people when I hit the softball, because I was so excited about hitting the softball. I threw like a girl because softballs are so heavy, except when I threw the bat, then I threw like a man. The only sport I liked in high school was archery, because we didn't have to change clothes and we spent half the time looking for lost arrows. Good times, those were good times!

    1. Archery! I'd forgotten about that but we did it too and I also liked it. I wonder if I could pull the bow back today? Probably not.... :)

  6. Thanks for the great blogs! Here is something which has helped me the most: swimming!


Thank you for commenting. If the post is over 14 days old, the comment will be moderated and will approved later. This is a spam prevention technique - but I love to hear from you!