Fighting Cancer with Fitness
“Can I go to Pilates tomorrow?”
Looking back, part of me can’t believe I uttered those words while lying on a table waiting for a doctor to biopsy the enormous tumour I found in my breast. The other part of me realises that question made perfect sense.
For the three years leading up to that point, I started almost every day in a boot camp Pilates class. The class made me happy. It was where I found peace and balance. It was where I got my head together. Of course I wanted to know if I could go to Pilates the day after my biopsy. It was my “normal” — something to hang on to — and I was never more desperate to know I still had it.
Understanding my emotional need, the doctor spoke gently and advised me to take two days off from any exercise. I took those two days off, and by the time I went back to Pilates, I had the news. I had breast cancer. The doctors thought it was stage 3a, but I had to wait for the mastectomy and pathology for the full details. Two weeks later, I had surgery and it was confirmed. On top of the mastectomy, I was facing 4 ½ months of chemotherapy, 30 rounds of daily radiation and two reconstructive surgeries. My adrenaline was pumping. I knew I could take on cancer and win, but I needed my established support system. A big question for every doctor I had was, “Can I continue my Pilates classes?” With post-op restrictions in place, they all said yes.
My primary treatments for cancer were surgery, chemo, radiation, love, smiles, honesty, diet and Pilates.
As the process evolved, I recorded my thoughts and experiences. I learned more about my body then I ever knew. Different foods and exercises spoke to me through different phases of treatment. Being able to identify what moves would help me through each aspect of treatment was a game changer. It was not only a physical release, but an incredibly empowering feeling that strengthened my emotions just as much as the workout strengthened my body.
Following is a look at how Pilates served as my lifeline through pre-op, post-op, chemo, radiation, and surviving cancer treatment.
PILATES IN PRE-OP
Strength & Calm
My diagnosis was overwhelming and I knew the impact my coming surgery would have. I wanted to go into my mastectomy with as much physical and mental strength as I could. Emotionally, Pilates was grounding for me. I got to work out in a class that remained the same while everything else in my life was turning upside down. Physically, Pilates kept me where I needed to be for the surgery I was facing and the tests that led up to it.
My favourite pre-op move was the Psoas Stretch. Tests, scans, appointments and treatment make for a lot of sitting and sometimes not in the most comfortable positions. For me, the Psoas stretch was essential and felt fantastic, providing a release to my hips and mid section that impacted my entire body.
PILATES IN POST-OP
Healing & Recovery
I was warned, but I never would have guessed how debilitating my mastectomy would be. In my head I was going to be ready for Pilates after a week, even though the doctors told me to wait six weeks. I wasn’t in pain, but I learned very quickly what I was up against. It was all I could do to get in and out of a chair or hold a fork. My biggest reality check was trying to open the refrigerator and not having the strength to do it. My Pilates background saved me in post-op on several levels. Having patience, strength, balance and being in tune with my body all came in to play.
My favourite post-op movie was the Plié. Breast cancer surgery typically comes with a lymph node dissection and the combination of incisions can leave your upper body out of commission. Engaging your Glutes and the muscles in your legs to Plié makes getting in and out of bed and up and down out of chairs much more manageable. The same engagement of these muscles and the ability to rely on my lower body in this way also helped me roll and upright myself from a position of reclining or lying down.
PILATES DURING CHEMO
Release & Relax
Chemo is chemicals. It runs through every part of your body with the intent of killing cancer cells. But that’s not all it does. It’s a lot like having an out-of-body experience inside another body that is trying to exorcise you out of it. Everyone has a varied experience. For me, sometimes I thought I could feel my organs rotting. Often every muscle in my body felt tight. As things progressed, so did the fatigue. And then there was the psychological reality of what was happening. Pilates helped with all of it. My dear friend and caregiver, Isis, always says that during chemo, Pilates and food became my lifeline. She’s right.
The inspiration I knew I would get from my instructor and classmates helped get me out of bed. The workout itself was like a massage that released the poison from my organs while strengthening my muscles. It was my morning reset to remind me of what I was doing, why I was doing it and that I was going to successfully get through it.
My favourite move during chemo was the Long Spine Stretch. Chemotherapy is a dump of chemicals that is likely to stiffen up your muscles and cause stress. I found the long spine stretch felt like a mini detox massage and I did my best to start every day with it. It was both soothing and empowering.
PILATES DURING RADIATION
Stretch & Awaken
In the beginning, I didn’t feel any different going to radiation. A few weeks in, I felt a tightening of my skin, the same feeling of tightness you might get with a sunburn. That, combined with my reduced range of motion from the lymph node dissection that accompanied my mastectomy, begged for a strengthening stretch to nurture my back, chest and shoulders.
My favourite move during radiation was Arm Circles. With daily radiation it was important for me to stay on top of it. Doing arm circles really opened me up and provided me with relief.
PILATES FOR SURVIVORS
Rebuilding & Balance
Coming out on the other side of cancer treatment can be just as traumatic as going into it. It certainly was for me. Going into it was a fight for survival. Coming out has been a struggle to fully see the woman staring back at me when I look in the mirror.
Many people, myself included, approach finishing cancer treatment with the attitude of, “You made it, so everything is great.” It is great, but it’s different, and that takes some getting used to. My boyfriend refers to the pre-cancer me as “Allison 1.0” and the current me as an “upgrade.” The first time he said that, I thought it was sweet. Now I’ve come to realize that in his words, he is really on to something. I did get an upgrade. It’s wonderful, but like all upgrades, it’s new. I have to figure out my operating system and how it works and that doesn’t happen overnight. In the day-to-day of understanding how it works now, Pilates has been incredibly helpful. It’s one of the things that evolved with me through treatment so I’m not having to play catch up and figure it out. It’s actually helping me figure out who the new me is. Just today, I woke up a bit overwhelmed. But when I went to class, it cleared the path to give me focus on what I’m doing now and what’s important in this moment. It’s a beautiful day.
Allison attended SPX Fitness Pilates Plus by Sebastian Lagree for the three years leading up to her 2011 diagnosis. She continued her workouts through the process and is still there today. Having learned so much from each other, Sebastian is featured in Allison’s newly released documentary What The F@#- Is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have It? They both will appear in Sebastian’s feature documentary The Future of Fitness, which is currently in production.
Please always remember to talk with your doctor about exercise during treatment. All of our bodies are different and we need to do what’s best for us.