I feel a bit out of place in this exercise class. I had scanned the gym schedule and this seemed consistent my level of fitness, “Lo impact” which I speculate means grey hair, slow movements and frequent breaks. (they used to call it “Zumba- the senior version”). But I drag myself in. My mind puts in a jab, ” You know you are not ready to go back to Zumba or a real aerobics class.” I sheepishly concur.
I walk in. The instructor seems enthusiastic and motivating. Her well toned arms with a body to match clearly indicate she does more than Lo-impact work herself.
I quietly position myself behind several ladies, trying not be noticed, in the studio. I occupy the spot right underneath the ceiling fan just to ensure that a surprise hot flash (thanks to the Tamoxifen) doesn’t melt me into a sweaty puddle and that too in the “Lo-impact” class. I try and console myself, ” All these women with lots of grey in their hair and hard earned wrinkles would know what a hot flash is like, you are not alone.”
That precise thought provided a weird connection to the women around me. They say chemotherapy ages the body very fast. I just might be the same age inside, as them. As it works out, the loss of ovarian function is thinning my bones and I am acutely aware of it. I have not had a menstrual period for the last 18 months. Still they are unsure if I am in menopause. Breast Cancer took with it, the hormones that defined me as a woman.
Low impact, perhaps is the right choice for someone suffering from joint pains of tamoxifen, ongoing fatigue of early menopause, 18 months of inactivity and reeling from the physical consequences of prolonged chemotherapy and steroid treatment… but psychologically it eats at me. I am the shell of who I was.
The Saturday queue for real Zumba used to be long, with firm young bodies and a cheerful chatter, the lucy and lulemon outfits with long pony tails and tans. Gone are those days. Now I am in the studio taking it slow.
I even had a personal trainer for a short time as I had decided that at 40, I should be in the best shape of my life, after all 40 is the new 20. Well now 40 feels like 60, even 70.
As we start to move to the music, her picture enters my mind. There goes another one. One in eight American woman. One more woman with Breast Cancer.
She was the eight one when she discovered the lump. The other seven went home to their families and their rigorous zumba classes and she is the eighth.
The one that got the call back. The one that now faces the biggest challenge of her life. I visualize her long blonde hair that look so beautiful and silky straight in all her pictures. I feel sad. I want to hold her hand and comfort her.
I whisper ” Hey Girlfriend, Lets Rock this cancer thing!”.
I had gotten a message at work from a friend that one of her friends was diagnosed recently. She, the blonde, is next in line for the cut, poison and burn. Yes they are all treatments and they work but at times that’s exactly how it feels……cut , poison and burn.
“Hey Girlfriend, Lets rock this cancer thing” I think.
I imagine her reluctantly willing to co-conspire in our cancer partying. My mind floods with ideas, a pink party should be fun , or an all wig dress up. Yeah she should dye her hair pink, like I did before they fell off. She should wear her best lingerie and get pictures taken before the surgery. She should have some hot steamy nights before the breasts retire.
She has got to live it up. That’s how you rock cancer, that’s how it’s done with style.
The music continues as we keep moving back and forth and sway our arms. I move a bit gingerly, for I have little acumen for dance plus chemotherapy has left me with chronic foot pain. I used to love to run but I can’t. I feel some self pity which slows my pace even further.
I keep telling her” You can totally rock this thing, you gotta be fierce ” That’s how you rock it. You talk to others, you connect with survivors, you keep your head high. You make friends with fear. You learn that uncertainty is cancer’s middle name. You stay grateful even in the darkest days. You dress up for chemo. You sport fashionable head gear. You fall and get up again and again and again.
The instructor is insisting we scream “fireball” with the lyrics, I oblige. Screaming is good.
“You can do that too, scream, be angry, punch a bag” whatever it takes to get over the initial shock of having breast cancer. If you need to be angry at the world till you find your bearing, do that. Chocolate, ice-cream or carbohydrates in general, whatever it takes to get out of that numb state. You have got to do it. Splurge on a dinner or a watch a performance. Buy good make-up for your down days. You must retain a connection with your femininity. Breast Cancer launches a full assault on woman hood and you have to fight back with all your might!
Let rock this cancer thing together!
“You need a theme song, I want to tell her, something that inspires you to fight, something that give you the will to live”.
I don’t remember exactly how it happened but “Roar” by Katy Perry became my theme song.We had “roar days” on Facebook and roared away as friends.
And it was heartwarming when my friend texted me during Super Bowl half time show and said “Uzma, your song is on”. I roared and roared to cancer, through one mastectomy, 16 chemotherapies, one ICU stay, one anaphylactic reaction, 33 radiations and countless other aches and pains that are too insignificant ,in my opinion, to take note of.
” You need to tell yourself, you will survive and for this time you have to believe every word you say to yourself, hold one to faith or your sources of comfort, do not become recluse, you need people to keep you alive”
The beat changes to a Colombian song and its mesmerizing. I get distracted from my thought process and take an inventory of the room around me. There are some who are in their element , others that are just winging it, but everyone is trying to find their pace.
“That’s what it is sister, you need to find your pace, your rhythm your beat!”
“Let’s rock this cancer thing”.
Most people tell me , ” I did cancer with style and grace” I believe them. I had to. What choice did I have? Complain about life being life? Whoever did live a predictable life? Not me, not you.
The pace sometimes is faster, sometimes painfully slow.
The trick is to keep moving, chimes the instructor, adapt what feels right to you, listen to your body.
“Yes that is it, keep moving and adapt”.
It may be hard to believe that your life will ever be the same but it will be, trust me.
Healing from cancer does take a long time. I continues to happen even after the treatments are over. The treatments take a toll on the body and it need rehabilitation, lots of it.
I started to get winded about 30 minutes into the class. I feel the grief. The grief of losing a healthy body that I once had. The prosthesis starts to feel cumbersome during the “bouncy step”. I notice that the lymphedema prevention sleeve feels full. Yes, up against my desire to return to fitness are several things stacked up.
Once someone has undergone a mastectomy and lymph node removal, there is a life time risk of developing swelling in the affected side. Who knew removing a breast can lead to arm swelling? Vigorous exercise can cause the body to heat up, an increase in lymph return and boom ! inflated arm! another cancer souvenir.
Many survivors live with this condition that is potentially irreversible.
I notice my fingers are full and suddenly the pace of my movements starts to match the steel haired lady next to me.
Her hair reminds me again of the newly diagnosed friend of a friend.
I assume she is physically fit, just like I was when it first got diagnosed 18 months ago. I was training for a 5k and lifting weights. I was fit and lean and quite strong.
Now I am moving but trying not to exert myself, worried about lymph accumulation, wearing a medical alert bracelet, wrestling with my prosthesis to get through a low impact aerobic class.
That’s the toll cancer and its treatments take on the body. It takes away outer beauty and inner strength or at least attempts to do so.
That’s where Girl friend you have to rock out cancer.
It all can be undone , with time , attitude and patience. I did it and you will too.
The sound track changes again and I hear a very familiar song …”Jai Ho” ( from the Slum Dog Millionaire) “Yes Jai Ho” ( Let victory prevail!), I survived, you will too.
Step 1 and 2 , backward and forward, shimmy.
Lets rock this cancer thing out!