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.
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)”.