It’s no secret that my breast cancer diagnosis rattled my perception of what it means to live a healthy lifestyle, and I live my life now recognizing that “good health” and “ideal body weight” are not necessarily related terms. I had thought that I was healthy before breast cancer, but my lack of exercise was not doing me any favors. I took the hint, and working out is now a part of my weekly schedule.
My friend Sheila’s Zumba class made a difference for me. The best part of attending an exercise class at the local synagogue was that there weren’t any mirrors to show me how ridiculous I looked. Sheila is a dedicated instructor, and she built up my confidence. She also helped me and the kids through our separation anxiety when I regained the endurance to take them places on my own again. She had no qualms about them tagging along.
When my schedule began to conflict with Sheila’s, I braved a Zumba class at the YMCA.
I was intimidated more by seeing my movements reflected through a wall of mirrors than I was by meeting the other women in attendance. Their smiles are encouraging and friendly, and I’m able to slip in at start time and out again to hit the showers before they can finish a swig from their water bottles.
Only a handful of people at the Y know I am a breast cancer survivor. It’s not the type of thing that comes up in conversation while we small talk about our weekends and significant others. I’m at a point now where I’ve been going there too long to mention it casually, or to stroll in wearing a quirky survivor’s t-shirt. I try to blend in, to laugh along when bras are being adjusted and to sympathize when complaints are made about breast soreness and strain. I look at myself in the mirror between songs and wonder if anyone can tell that I don’t have a sports bra on, or if they notice that they can’t tell if I’m cold by looking at my chest. Breast cancer is a big part of my identity now, an essential bit of knowledge to connect with me. But, then again, not carrying that label for the few hours a week I am at the gym is liberating, too.
The current style and cut of most active wear is not flattering on me because
- I have no need for a sports bra. These implants are solid, my skin is pulled tight over them thanks to radiation, and there is zero, I mean, zero bounce. The only possible benefit might be to minimize the serious lopsidedness I have going on, but another layer of clothing is not going to be helpful during a hot flash. And then there’s that whole “no nipples” situation…
- I have scars from incisions, drains, and radiation burns, plus a lack of circulation effecting my skin color. The result is that I’m self-conscious about showing too much skin. One day I wore a tank top to class. Never, ever again. All I could see reflected back in the mirror was every imperfection I have. I was convinced that everyone else was staring at me, and I left the room with a headache because my jaw was clenched so tightly from anxiety.
- I’m not into trying on clothes, so my lack of patience means I don’t shop around enough to find the right fit, anyway.
I show up in baggy t-shirts that are dated and worn. There may even be speculation that I shop exclusively at yard sales. Funny that I would be more comfortable with that assumption than with the regulars drawing conclusions about my health history.
After taking one of the Y’s Zumba classes on a frequent basis, I tried Zumba Toning. This class presented more challenges, as dancing with weights puts me on high osteoporosis alert. (I’m not the most graceful person, and all it would take is one nasty fall to put me out of commission for a while.) Another obstacle is being mindful of what I can and can’t do physically. The other week, our instructor demonstrated a series of exercises that we would be performing during the next song. My heart sank, because as soon as she began to do push-ups with side arm plank rotations I was at a loss as to how I could modify that.
This was the first time I had to admit in a class that I couldn’t keep up. I hang out in the back, and maybe a classmate or two has noticed time and again that I need a short break or that I may slow down a bit, but this time I had say something. We were going to be spread out across the room in a big circle, facing one another. My impulse was to let the instructor know immediately that I was going to need another task.
“I won’t be able to do that,” I said. “Can you help me with a modification?”
“Sure thing!” the instructor responded. “I’ll come right to you at that time.”
My face was burning, but I was relieved. I had been able to look her in the eye, she noticed my embarrassment, and she didn’t miss the opportunity to be encouraging and supportive.
I turned to take my place for wall squats, when I heard another woman in the class snicker and say “Give me a break. Do sit-ups or something. ” The implication was there: Stop being dramatic, you attention-whore.
I was taken aback. When I first joined the gym, it was challenging for me. I was self-conscious and lacking motivation. I was there out of a sense of obligation, but not with any defined goals to achieve. Even through life-altering surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and physical therapy, I was still finding myself mentally at odds with working out.
That has yet to change. I keep waiting for the moment when the switch is flipped and I enjoy running, or lifting, or getting sweaty and gross and having my hair stick to my forehead. When will I be enthralled with my heart racing and with measured breathing? Regardless, I have become somewhat comfortable at the YMCA, my kids are happy there, and I’m beginning to let go of both my apprehension and that outsider feeling.
So now was I going to let some ignorant statement throw me off track? Were my modest gains so fragile?
I went back the next week and took a Pilates class. Even though the pace and the tone were challenging, I was not discouraged. If don’t want to be weak anymore I must continue to set the bar a little higher and push myself.
But the second week of Pilates was even harder. I was plowed through, and then here came the effing planks with rotations again. At one point, my eyes welled with tears of frustration. My body isn’t cooperating. I can’t do this. I’m too weak for this. I’m going to hurt myself AND make a fool of myself in one shot.
My mind wouldn’t stop.
I turned around and faced the back wall. I wiped at my eyes furiously and sniffed. Maybe that woman’s assumptions during Zumba Toning were right. Maybe I was dramatic. What the hell was I really afraid of? How did I know I couldn’t do it, if I didn’t give myself the chance to try?
It wasn’t graceful, coordinated, or strong, but I did it. My arms were fully extended, I was planking and pushing and turning. I could only do it twice but I DID IT TWICE. And then, then the tears gushed from me.
My body isn’t nearly as broken as I think it is, but my spirit is still wounded. The changes I have made to better my health are having a positive influence on me, but it’s imperative that I take time out to quiet my mind and let it heal. When I slow down my brain and focus on the present—not forcing myself to look ahead or to weigh multiple variables each waking moment, and give my full attention to a task—the tears always come.
I should be thanking that cranky woman for calling me out. If I want to be strong, if I want to be defined that way, it isn’t going to come from an instructor, or classmates, or clothing, or a scarred body, or from any of the fears I allow to look over my shoulders and that I ignore to avoid.
It has to come from me.