I can clearly remember the day two summers ago when I realized that if I was going to continue to enjoy my life despite metastatic breast cancer, I’d have to make some serious changes. I was kayaking in a small lake with my son and when it was time to get out of the kayak, I needed help from the rental staff. To be fair, that need wasn't unusual - they were standing by as every adult returned to shore. Still, it was a wake-up call.
That realization led to all sorts of changes: I stepped up the physical therapy exercises designed to strengthen and stabilize my knees; I followed through on a friend's information and decided to participate in a fitness study for metastatic breast cancer patients; I joined a gym with one of my daughters.
I'm not going to lie – making these changes has not been easy. People will tell me that doing something for three months means it will become a habit. Maybe that’s true, but there are still days when I long for the easy fitness I had as a teenager. I also know and am thankful for the fact that despite having what could be a debilitating and painful disease, I have so far been extremely lucky physically.
This summer, I'll find out if I can now get out of a kayak on my own. I know I'll be nervous to try – doing so requires that I trust the strongest parts of my body to cover for the weakest.
Learning to trust my body again seems to be an ongoing lesson for me. After injuring my knees, I had to learn (and then re-learn) how to stand up from the ground. Peripheral neuropathy has meant that I have to be watchful of tripping hazards. Once your body has betrayed you with cancer and then furthered that with stuff like falling, it requires single-minded resolve to help it be as trustworthy as possible again.
This was brought home to me this month when two of my kids and I decided to hike into the early-spring canyons of a state park. I knew that I would be able to handle miles of walking (thanks to the fitness study and gym membership) – but climbing? Slippery rocks? Hundreds of uneven stairs for the steepest descents? It wasn't until the final canyon of our hike that I gave my body a break. As I looked with longing at the thin waterfall and shallow pool that could be reached only by balancing on an unsteady tree branch stretched across muddy water, I had to finally say no.
I felt close to tears as I turned to my daughter to say I would be staying where I was and would just watch them. How could I not take those last steps to get to the other side with them? Why had the physical effects of cancer wrecked my life? I felt, momentarily, like the saddest failure in the park — one who couldn't do the things other people got to do and would miss out on so much beauty and adventure.
It still stings to think about that moment.
Giving up parts of a life and learning how to live with those losses is, for me, one of the most difficult aspects of my metastatic cancer. I have had years of practice now but each time I'm confronted by another loss, the pain is there just waiting to pounce on any self-acceptance I've gained. I struggled to beat back that pain in the moment but also took time to reflect on the fact that I'd just hiked seven miles and explored three other canyons. I'd reached a hidden spot by balancing each foot on the opposing sides of a thin passageway and been rewarded with a beautiful, enclosed waterfall and I'd spent the day outside with two of my kids.
I can relive the moment I decided not to risk falling in that last canyon and wonder if I made the right choice. Maybe I could have crossed the branch (and made the return trip), but maybe I would have slipped and undone the work that had allowed me to explore the state park to begin with. I wasn't ready for that risk. Sometimes the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to take a moment to acknowledge the loss, absorb it and keep moving forward.