I started running a mile a day the Monday after I finished radiation treatments (Feb 1)- like I promised myself I would. After four days I ran just under a 13 minute mile which for me is within my “normal” range when I’m in really bad shape. Hard to believe that a week before I was still doing cancer treatments. But when I’m running it’s very noticeable to me because of the side effects.
- my armpit got extremely tender and sore (They warned me about this ahead of time. The radiation, as you would expect, causes extremely bad sunburn. It damages your skin. Of course the benefits of reducing cancer recurrence outweighs the risks of it causing skin issues, including melanoma. They had told me not to do anything that would require me to swing my arm against my chest and armpit on that side during radiation. So I promised myself I would start running as soon as radiation was over. Then at my last appointment they told me to wait another 2 weeks, but I decided not to wait. I’d already waited so long- since last April when I was first diagnosed with cancer. Now, I get it. I dried myself slightly non-gently after my shower that first week and it inflamed my armpit scar so badly that it still hurt nearly a week later. Each day that I ran (with my arm dragging against my armpit and chest area with each step), it got more sore. My husband was horrified when he saw what it looked like.) 😮
- my bra and running shirt no longer fit correctly (After a lap or two, I found my bra slid over towards the “still have a breast side” and caused my strap to keep sliding down. It also caused my shirt to spin on my body. For someone who has extreme sensitivity issues to anything that is slightly out of place, it can seem like torture. I am slowly adjusting.)
- I feel, sit, stand, walk, run lopsided. This goes along with what’s listed above. Things don’t seem to fit correctly anymore (which is understandable), and I find my self looking down to see if I am standing twisted (sometimes I am…). I am working on my posture to be certain I am not hunching.
- I am tired. I am tired. I am tired.
While I’m running around the track, all of the above things go through my mind. I think I’ve decided I will never wear a prosthetic. I wonder how many other people out there are hiding the fact that they had breast cancer and survived. I want people to know when they see me that you can survive this too. Of course when I’m running here at Jenison it’s full of young ROTC kids who wouldn’t notice the chest of a 49 year old gray-haired woman who’s running around the track with them, but of course it’s on my mind the entire time- I feel the pain, the discomfort, the lopsidedness. I felt self-conscious at first, but then I reminded myself not to care what others think. They don’t know my story and if they judge without knowing it, well that’s on them. I’m a warrior, I tell myself.
Yesterday, as I was running my last lap, one of the ROTC captains told me “You’ve got this! Keep it up!” as I ran past him. It reminded me that I have more people supporting me than I even realize. Wow.
As I run, I also think about all I’ve been through in the past year and wonder where I’ll be a year from now. My life was irrevocably changed that day last April when I first found the lump. For the better maybe. I mean I’m much more aware of what is important in life and I am learning how to live better, I think.
That first week I ran one mile a day. I tried not to time myself, but instead to focus on not stopping until I’d run one mile. The first day, I had some chest tightness. I sort of expected that. I’d been fairly sedentary for many months, and I knew that the chemo can affect your heart and the surgery had affected my chest wall for sure. But I did it. The first week I ran 5 miles. Last week, I added a lap. So I ran one mile plus one lap each day, except Friday (which I took off of work to help my husband prepare for our weekend trip so that he and my 10 year old son could take their Tang Soo Do black belt test, also known as Cho Dan test- but that’s a story for another time). This week, I’ve run one mile and two laps each day. I’m not fast, I’m not pretty, but I’m running without stopping. Good enough for me for now.
I almost didn’t run that 2nd Monday, thinking I needed to let my armpit heal over a long weekend. But I’m glad I went, because that was the day I met Paul.
Paul says he is 68 and he is built like my husband – very tall and fit. I had seen him at Jenison each day before we officially met. He runs for a while then does sets of chin ups on a bar near the track. My first contact with him was simply a smile. That camaraderie type of – hey, we’re both here trying our hardest to get/stay fit. The day we first officially met, he was sitting at the first aid table where he usually rests between sets of chin ups. He was wearing what appeared to be work clothes. You know, the “maintenance worker” type work clothes. It made me think he might be an employee of the Athletic Department or Physical Plant and that he came in here to exercise each day before he started work.
And that day, in my opinion, he was looking a bit forlorn. As I started to stretch out before my run, he told me his problem. “I got all the way here and realized I forgot my workout bag that has my clothes in it!” Then he went on to explain that if he went all the way home to get them, he wouldn’t have time to get his workout in. I thought maybe he had to get to work, but then he told me he was retired.
His time crunch? He wanted to get home in time to see his daughter off to work like he does every morning. He explained that she was an adult who was living with him after having graduated college. Every morning, he drives into Jenison to get his workout in and then he always makes sure he gets home before she leaves for work to tell her good bye. And in case you’re wondering, she does not travel long distance for work or go overnight somewhere where he might miss her. He simply finds it important to tell her good bye each morning before she goes off to work for the day. He finds value in being there with the people he loves, even if it’s just for the small simple moments, like wishing someone a good day before they head out of the house.
It was very interesting to hear his story. He’d gone to school somewhere in the East (New York maybe? My stupid chemo brain doesn’t allow me to remember details for very long unfortunately.) 😦 He said he had a Master’s degree and had lived here in East Lansing for years, finally retiring. He said he had spent a lot of time here working out with his son, who had now long since graduated and gone on to his adult life. He was telling me about his back issues. That it frustrated him to have been so fit for so many years and then to struggle now sometimes with back pain to where these last few weeks he had to really push himself to just run a few laps. I explained how my husband had also struggled with back issues and that a trip to a physical therapist had done wonders for him. I also told him about the transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine that my husband uses to control pain when he does have an issue. The machine basically stimulates the nerve that is causing your pain and according to my husband it works to block your brain from feeling the pain.
And I encouraged him to see his doctor to get a referral to a back specialist, rather than continuing to suffer and get more physically degraded each day he couldn’t do his full workout. He asked about me and I explained that I had just started back to running after fighting off breast cancer. He called me “one tough lady” which sounded so incredibly like my husband that I had to smile. 🙂
Though Paul and I share nothing more than a “good morning” and a smile, or “run a half mile for me today, Gina” or “did you see your doctor yet, Paul?”, it’s the fact that we connected – that we take the little bit of time each morning to share encouragement, that makes his friendship valuable to me. Again, he finds value in being there for someone even if it’s just a small simple moment. I’m learning from people like him how to value my life better. How to see the beauty and pleasure in the small things. It’s always there, I just don’t always remember to look. I’m working on that.
So far, in 2016, I’ve run over 13 miles. It doesn’t sound like much, but I am proud of that accomplishment. There were times when I didn’t know for sure if I’d see 2016. I am 13 miles into 2016. And 13 miles into the rest of my life.