being human and having a body

I was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago this week. This requires some acknowledgment and some introspection on my part. In this last year, I have come to a turning point; my body, it’s pain, is no longer directing my experience, neither mentally, nor physically. 

Thank goodness. 

Becoming used to being a flat chested woman is a journey. I have learned a lot about myself, it is almost as if I have been emerging from a chrysalis, unwrapping the leaves of societal expectation (breast cancer patients are encouraged and expected to reconstruct or wear breast forms). I am learning to love the shape I am. I am learning to embrace this stronger, more fortified version of myself. This is a fantastic journey, really. By opting out of creating a semblance of a breast, by opting out of wearing the shape of a breast within a garment, and learning to love my body, my way, I am rebuilding my idea of my self, body image and my personal capabilities. 

Cancer, the treatment to rid the body of cancer, is harrowing to say the least. Luckily for me though, during the time that I was going through the worst of it, I came to the thought that, if my body could withstand the almost lethal dose of medication called chemotherapy, what else could it achieve? 

I came to the realization that although my diet was pretty good, the one thing that I was not doing was exercise. Between opting out of breast reconstruction and wondering what this might do to my self esteem, I decided that exercise was a great way to create a mind/body connection. I imagined that connecting the mind and the body would help bolster my confidence and help me to accept the new shape of my body.

But how do you go from never really ‘investing’ in exercise to helping yourself embrace it? Exercise is drudgery, isn’t it? No, not at all. Actually, and I can say this in all honesty, now that I have been lifting weights three times a week for more than a year and a half, exercise makes everything better. My mood has improved, my scars do not feel as tight, I have a better understanding of what foods will pack on pounds, what foods will feel great. And lifting weights sure does sculpt and streamline your body, I must say, I like the aesthetics of weight lifting.

So back to it: how do you change the idea that exercise is drudgery? This is what I did: 

I started out by researching free workouts, fitness blogs, and basically, body types. I used YouTube for this. From there I realized that I like the shape that weightlifting can give the female form. Finding an exercise regimen that you like is key! 

I found a few websites that I like and continue to follow like, MyOhMytv, Fit and Feminist, GoKaleo, Bret Contreras, to name a few. Reading about and keeping your mind focused by reading books, blogs and watching YouTube videos is great reinforcement of your commitment and you will learn a bunch, just make sure you find quality sources, I don’t suggest reading fitness magazines that promise to reveal your abs in 20 minutes, with a restrictive, unfun diet. Beside which, fitness and fashion magazines promote a body ideal that has negative connotations, you can trust yourself on your own journey to know when YOUR body looks and feels optimal to YOU.

But here is the most important part: It is crucial to to tell yourself as you begin to work out, that exertion feels good. Remind yourself that your body is an amazing machine, that you take part in maintaining and helping it improve. You are not a victim of your body, but a participant in its abilities. And after each workout it is essential to compliment yourself on a job well done. Writing these compliments down in a workout journal can help a lot.

Creating a mental atmosphere that supports active commitment and participation to exercise is essential. I certainly do not want to go overboard-there are no ‘beast workouts’ for me, I workout three times a week and all together, each workout takes no more than forty-five minutes to one hour. This is easy. Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, preferably before 9 a.m., I lift weights, here, at home.

I am consistent.

I keep track of my reps and weight lifted so that I can look back on my progress and encourage myself to lift heavier when the time and numbers of reps seem right. I date each entry. I compliment myself (especially when I did not want to workout but did so anyway). And when someone compliments me, I write that down and date it too (I got a great compliment about the shape of my arms a few months back and I still enjoy seeing that entry in my workout journal).

I used to think that exercise was all or nothing, that if I didn’t do a workout, I would spiral into not wanting to workout ever again. This is not true. If I miss a workout, or two, or a few weeks of working out, I choose a date to begin working out again and I am patient and methodical about getting back in the game. I do not punish myself for needing, or taking a break.

I am grateful that my cancer diagnosis had the effect of encouraging me to invest in a fit body. Not only do I want to help my body resist disease, I want the confidence that comes with the commitment to getting my workout in. I want the strength of my glutes, propelling me down the street, as I rush to catch the subway, I want beautiful shoulders and I like having a metabolic ‘safety net’ when I go on holiday and eat one too many pieces of chocolate (you can’t out-train a bad diet, but if you are mostly clean in your food choices, all will be well). Most of all, I want a sense of body image that is filled with love and compassion and working out helps me connect all of these dots in the best of ways.

So, I thank my diagnosis for helping me integrate exercise into my life, but goodbye and good riddance! Let the door hit you in the ass, cancer! And hopefully, perhaps you, dear reader, might be inspired to exercise without ever needing to face the words, “I am sorry to say, we found ____________(fill in the dis-ease)”.


19 thoughts on “being human and having a body

  1. Melanie… this was just what i needed to read…. i just had my 3 year anniversary on November 30th… your words could be my own… however… i have been slacking on my exercise and thats really not me… i have a degree in fitness and nutrition and have been wondering if i was pissed off at my body…. for the betrayal of breast cancer when my whole life i have taken such good care of (my body ) …. eaten all the right foods and working out everyday and doing all the right things…. now its time to take control again… and reading this blog did just that for me. It may very well change my life ! you are an inspiration…. and i think there was a reason i clicked on your link… i thank you so very much for your wonderful words that hit home … that will make me essentially forgive my body and get it healthy again…. and will be the basis of saying ‘ it has been 25 years since my bilateral mastectomies and flat and fabulous lifestyle… and i want to thank Melanie Testa… cuz back in january of 2014… i read her blog and it totally turned my life around ” wishing you the absolute best in this journey we share :))) ((( hugs ) ) )


  2. Hi Melanie!
    I’m sure I won’t be the first person to suggest that you’re writing is terrific: insightful, encouraging, clear and honest. I suspect that your future may include sharing your writing via other media and also that many other people would benefit from reading your words who may not access the internet. You’re an inspiration and a light in the world.
    Love and All good wishes in 2014!


  3. I agree with everything you said about having the mind body link established thru regular excersize! I love seeing your fit self! For me I love the beauty that rafiates from your face. Especially your eyes. In every photograph of you, that is e here I see your confidence, grit snd determination. That is what is so very inspiring.



  4. Thank you for this. I really needed to hear this now. I used to be pretty regular in my exercise routine here at home. 30 minutes on the treadmill followed by free weights. I have been very remiss in keeping up with this for some time now. This post gives me just the boost I need to get back down there and show my gratitude for the healthy body I’ve been given. Exercise also encourages me to eat better, I’ve been pretty horrible about that as well. Not any more.


  5. What a fabulous post. I am looking forward to celebrating my ‘5’ year. 5 yrs from diagnosis happens for me on Jan 23. It has been a journey since then with lots of upheaval and change in my life. 3 years ago I had the second mastectomy and I have never looked back. I was considering reconstruction but fell off that fence when someone from my dragon boat team had a leak in her implant which caused fear of the return of her cancer. I have enough scares without inviting one into my body, never mind all the physical pain etc associated with said reconstruction.
    I had a fall in January of 2012 that led me to drop out of the dragon boat experience. Since then I have tried various gyms but they just don’t work for me at this point in time. I recently moved to a location I have wanted to live in for a very long time and I find myself enjoying increasingly long walks up and down the mountainous terrain to enjoy an every changing and spectacular series of views. I feel better than I have in a couple of years. I am adding nordic poles to my walks later this week (they are on order) in an attempt to get more upper body benefit and hopefully reduce the lymphedema swelling in my right arm. If that doesn’t work then I may try adding cuff weights to my wrists. It is a work in progress, but I am getting better every day.
    I am also finding I am feeling more creative since resuming my walking regimen. I am focused on finishing up a whole lot of UFO’s at the moment but then its on to bigger and better projects…
    Happy ‘3’ to you Melly! And Happy ‘5’ to me! And Happy “whatever number” you may be celebrating! We are all winners wherever we may be on our journey


  6. This is such a frank and encouraging post! You look great! I have a regular cardio exercise routine but I’m not so good at squeezing in weight routines. I could stand to lose weight and due to a couple of medical conditions my muscle tone is poor.
    I’m going to check out the sites you recommended.


  7. Wow, Melly. I remember when you made the frightening announcement. I think of you sharing so much of your journey with us. I think of the strength and sense of peace that seemed to radiate from you. Those are there, still, and shine even brighter. Hooray that you have taken such steps to take control of what you can and embracing and working with what you can’t control. I knew that I clicked on your link, some years ago, for a reason.
    I have one of your ATCs from a swap I took part in when I lived in Denmark a few years ago. I have it still. I keep it in my creative space, where all ATCs should I think of you and wish you well on your journey.
    I will keep tuning in and very much look forward to your textile designs as well as posts on being human.
    Thank you for being an inspiration. ck


  8. This post is one of your best! So much of what you have written is true for every person. Although, I would have preferred that you had come to the realization of how empowering exercise is without traveling the cancer road.
    I feel that I must confess that I have been slacking for 3 years. First, I missed a couple of days, then weeks, now years. It is that initial step that is hard. Rebuilding the habit, being honest that I really don’t want to be a slug, and getting off my arse and moving.
    Thank you, dear Melly, for once again reminding me that I have an obligation to myself to treat my body well. To move it and treat it as lovingly as I do my fur-panions. Sure, I will ache for a few days, but the mental and physical payoffs far out weigh a few days of the achies.
    Thank you also for the links. I think changing the routine up and learning new movements will motivate me to continue.
    I realized years ago that I will never have a 6 pack. Just like I will never be willowy nor tall. But, the sunny feeling I get from treating my body well is almost as good. (Well, not really. I still would like to be 5’7″ so I can reach the things in the top cupboard. 😀 )
    You are more beautiful each and every day. xoxo


  9. Congrats, Miss Melly! Three years… wow! You have done a wonderful job of turning a frightening time of your life into a positive direction, and I am so glad you did! I confess to being a lazy bug when it comes to exercise, even though I love how I feel when I do it. I am trying hard to reestablish a regular work-out routine, and will check out your links to see if I can add anything to my normal workouts. Thanks so much for sharing all the ups and downs of your journey… you continue to be a fabulous inspiration to so many!


  10. What a beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing it with me! (And I’m pleased that I can play even a tiny role in your journey.) I have someone in mind who I think could really benefit from reading this, and so I will be sharing it with her, as well as the rest of the blog’s readers. hugs


  11. Dear Melly,
    Three years. I’m so happy that you have passed this milestone and have been able to embrace your new path. You are so right: exercise makes everything better. You inspire me every single day. Sending love to you and wishing a truly great year in 2014! Woo Hoo!
    xoxo Leslie


  12. Hi Melanie,
    Congrats on a major milestone passed and a very inspiring post !
    I was wondering, though, whatever happened to your Breast Pockets project ?
    My friend, Andrea Singer, died last January before she could see what you had accomplished with the pockets I sent from some of her blouses.


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