This is the story of my journey surviving breast cancer. I’m not going to go into the details of my surgeries and treatment — that’s for another time — but I am going to share with you how a serious illness and mindful movement led me to my passion. It’s why I’m still here… and why I believe mindful movement should be a part of everyone’s life.
Getting diagnosed with breast cancer was never on my bucket list. There is nothing more heart-stopping than hearing those three little words: “you have cancer.”
I was diagnosed with advanced stage IIIC breast cancer with poor odds of survival. In just a few seconds I knew exactly what I was going do to. I chose traditional treatment, a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. There aren’t a lot of things you can control during treatment, but the one thing I knew I had control over was staying alive.
After treatment, you are basically told to have a nice life but aren’t given any real direction. The problem is that there aren’t any programs available to breast cancer patients. You might find a yoga program, but I couldn’t do most of the poses. I have been active all my life, swimming, cycling and practicing Pilates – so I created a recovery program for myself.
The easiest thing to do was to walk. Due to the surgeries and treatments, I had no balance. So, I pulled out my trek poles and used them as I would cross-country ski poles. I started by walking one block and gradually increased my distance. I plotted distances from my home, remembering that if I walked a mile, I still had a mile to walk back.
Those walks eventually became three-mile runs.
Finding Mindful Movement in Recovery
I’ve had more surgeries than I care to remember. Depending on which group of doctors I listened to, I was given different guidelines. Also, my lymph nodes were removed from my left arm, which created a whole new set of challenges.
If you lift weights with your left arm you might develop lymphedema (swelling of the arm due to fluid buildup). Lymphedema is very painful and the arm swells to three times its size. Once you have it, you’ll always have it. The other issue was if I didn’t move, I could end up with stiff shoulder. Also, my posture had disintegrated, my shoulders were rounded, I had forward head posture and I held my arm across my stomach. I call this protective mode and not very attractive.
In addition to the surgical issues, there were two chemotherapy drugs I took: the first four rounds attack soft tissue, the second four attack bone marrow. The side effects of the second drug were the worst. Imagine you have the flu times 100. I ached everywhere. The crazy thing was, I couldn’t tolerate the pain while sitting around, but I could when I was moving, walking or riding my bike.
I needed to keep moving.
The first thing I needed to do was regain mobility and range of motion. The next was stretching and addressing all of my issues. To do this, there were about 12 Pilates exercises I did every day, twice a day. It was pretty painful in the beginning, but I was starting to see results — what a motivator to continue! I still do these exercises to this day.
While I was increasing my range of motion, I still didn’t have much strength. As I mentioned before, had been practicing Pilates for several years before my diagnosis. Through my research I found that STOTT PILATES® had just released two DVD’s for breast cancer rehabilitation. I was finally back doing Pilates.
This wasn’t just a once in a while thing. My day started with half an hour of stretching – shoulders, chest, back, legs and abs. After breakfast I completed a three-mile run and did 30 to 60 minutes of mat Pilates in the afternoon. I was seeing amazing results: my posture improved, I was able to stand upright, my overall strength and stamina were increasing, and I was regaining my confidence.
In 2009, one year after my initial diagnosis and one week before Christmas, I had to have latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction due to complications from radiation. Known as a lat flap surgery, during this procedure your lat muscle on your back is moved to your chest, making recovery very difficult. After the surgery, I was told I would probably not be able to swim, ride a bike uphill or cross-country ski.
I was devastated.
Five days later I was back on my bike. It would be months before I would know if I could still swim.
In March, I was allowed back in the pool. I swam 72 laps — one mile — and I didn’t swim like Nemo. I immediately called my surgeon and told him I was going to do a triathlon. I registered for the Tinman Triathlon, an Olympic-distance race in Hawaii. The problem was I had only three months to train. My training consisted of my usual stretches and an hour of Pilates in the morning. In the afternoon, I either rode my bike or swam – increasing my distance each day. I set a goal to finish in 3 hours 30 minutes: I smashed that goal and finished the triathlon in 3 hours 20 minutes… I was back!
The next day I returned home for my final surgery.
Don’t tell my surgeon, but the day after each surgery I would get on my bike trainer and ride. I couldn’t touch the handlebars so I sat upright. The first day I rode for five minutes. I added five minutes each day, and by the time I went back for my six-week follow up, I was riding for two hours every day.
Those Three Little Words
I knew my life would be forever changed after being diagnosed with breast cancer. I also knew that if I wasn’t going to be around long, I was at least going to do something I loved.
During my recovery journey, I fell in love with Pilates and knew I wanted to share what I had learned with others. So, in September I moved to Toronto, Canada, and spent the next year training at the Toronto Corporate Training Center to become a STOTT PILATES® Certified Pilates Instructor.
It may sound crazy, but I am forever grateful and humbled by this experience because it led me to my passion. It’s been 12 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I am still here against all odds. Recently, I heard three little words I never thought I would hear: “you are cured.”
So, what if movement is the answer? I whole-heartedly believe it is. And that is why I resolve to move every day!
STOTT PILATES® is a contemporary approach to the original exercise method pioneered by the late Joseph Pilates. Lindsay and Moira Merrithew, along with a team of physical therapists, sports medicine and fitness professionals, have spent over three decades refining the acclaimed STOTT PILATES® method of exercise. The refined method resulted in the inclusion of modern principles of exercise science and rehabilitation — making it one of the safest and most effective methods available. Samantha Fox is the owner and instructor at Studio F Pilates. Her studio is located in the Bank Block Building at 2 South Main Street in Heber City. For more information: 435.901.3699 or @studio_f_pilates.