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Did Cancer Make Me Feel Like a Beached Whale?

Whenever I exercise, I seem not to know what I am doing. Is it lack of coordination or is it too much attention to movement?
PUBLISHED June 23, 2017
In July 2011 Barbara Carlos was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. A resident of Hawaii, she works in administrative support at a college and has retirement as her career goal. Music keeps her sane, as side effects of chemo and radiation linger. Overweight since childhood, she keeps trying to lose the estrogen-laden fat that her cancer loves.
I have never been athletic or graceful. In fact, I am kind of spazzy and have two left feet. I have balance issues from neuropathy. The muscles in my legs, mostly my thighs, are stiff and tight from medication side effects. Oh, and my joints hurt on occasion, sometimes a lot. I walk into things so much that it doesn’t even register with me when I do so. I am constantly discovering bruises all over my body and I have no clue as to how they got there. When I move, it’s in a slightly jerking manner. I have gotten used to all of this and it doesn’t bother me anymore. The main thing is that I am able to move and I get wherever I am going. But sometimes people notice. I took a trip last month and twice when deplaning flight attendants asked if I needed a wheelchair. Both times I replied, “Not yet!” and kept going. You see what I mean?

Last year I challenged myself by signing up for a combination pilates and yoga class. All of the other students were much younger than me and had been doing both forms of exercise for years. Now, why you ask, would I want to be the neophyte in such a setting? 

Well, I like to push my boundaries every once in a while. This class was well beyond what I normally would try. I know exercise is good for me and needed to up the ante. I wanted to have something that required a bit more effort than I had been putting into my exercise routines up in the previous two years.

Pilates is supposed to burn a lot of calories, and it probably does when someone other than me does it. I was always behind the others in the class because I just couldn’t move as quickly but more so because it took me time to figure out where I was supposed to put each of my extremities for every single exercise. We did the same basic exercises every week and I kept struggling with the motions. I looked like a beached whale and I felt like one, especially when we were on our mats on the floor.

Yoga is basically stretching so I thought if I got the hang of it, yoga would be something I could continue well into old age. It was something I had been thinking about checking out since I know some people who do yoga. They seem to enjoy it so I thought I might too. And, let’s face it, yoga is perceived as cool and who doesn’t want to be cool. Even though yoga was way slower than pilates, I still flailed about behind the others, trying to figure out where to put what for each pose. 

After six months I left the class. It’s not that I felt I had mastered pilates and/or the yoga poses. I felt I had gotten about all I was going to get out of the class. I didn’t like pilates half. I really didn’t like it. I don’t like getting hot and sweaty and, truth be told, pilates is WORK. I didn’t expect to like yoga since I am not a touchy-feely hippy but I found I really enjoyed it. I bought the books, Pilates for Dummies and Yoga for Dummies so I could continue each at my own pace and at a time and location that was more convenient than a scheduled class. When I am slowly doing pilates or yoga at home, I still feel like a beached whale but not such a large, ungainly beached whale. 

Over the last few months, I have read several articles extolling the benefits of Tai Chi, another form of exercise I would never have explored in my younger days but had become curious about. As mentioned, I have balance issues and Tai Chi is supposed to help with balance. And there was a recent study about Tai Chi helping with sleep problems for those of us with breast cancer. I work at a school and over the summer a free Tai Chi class for arthritis and fall prevention was being offered. Did you say “free”? Sign me up!

I have had eight Tai Chi classes so far. At home, I work on my Tai Chi moves using a handout from the class. Yes, the beached whale continues to flounder. I’ll still be going to the right when the instructor and the other students are finishing up on the left side. By the time I finish on the left, they are on to the next movement. My arms, hands and legs are going every which way, but usually not the right way. The instructor tells me I am doing great. I think she is a very kind and nice person. 

I have tried to think back to remember if I had beached whale tendencies years ago. I don’t recollect anything along that line. Of course, I hadn’t been in a real exercise environment for 25 years or so until I gave it a go last year. Besides being younger back then, I was also, well, let’s say less fluffy than I had become by the time of my diagnosis. 

Since cancer, I try to listen to my body. Like most of us who have been there, I am ever-alert for any new ache or pain that might signal cancer again. A certain amount of hypochondria is good and one day it may be what saves my life. But meanwhile, I wonder how much of my beached whale feelings are due to being more aware of my body and paying closer attention to it than I did when I was able to take it for granted. And then does that mean that no matter what kind of exercise I try, will I always feel like a beached whale unless I stop the extra awareness and attention? If that’s the case, beached whale I will stay.
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