I'm not a fitness guru. I've never been an aerobics instructor or a physical therapist. I'm just a man with cancer. My mother often told me how, the minute I discovered my legs, somewhere around 18 months of age, I would dash out of the house laughing as she chased me down the sidewalk. Running was emancipating. It was exhilarating and it was fun.
But you don't have to be able to run to exercise. The truth is, you don't even have to be able to walk. I've found the very act of movement whether it's with our legs, our arms, our lungs or even our brains, can be deeply beneficial to us as cancer survivors, despite our thoughts about ourselves and our disabilities that may try to convince us otherwise.
Of course, if you have cancer or another disease, you'll want to use common sense and talk to your doctor or physical therapist before throwing on your running shoes and dashing about the neighborhood, but that's not what I'm suggesting.
Here's a little of my own pre-cancer history that may help to illuminate my story.
I was horrible at contact sports. I once got on the "C" football team in high school (this was the team for small guys) and I remember literally shedding tears when we were forced to block a tackle by butting our opponents with our helmeted heads, like two angry big horn sheep.
Fortunately, for a 16-year-old boy, my helmet shielded my crying from the other guys. But it hurt. It made me feel alienated from other human beings. It felt primitive and unkind. It felt like anti-exercise – like some sort of low-grade combat that offered nothing but the possibility of injury. By the way, I'm told that football is by far the most popular sport in America, so obviously my opinions are my own here.
Then one day, not long after sitting on the bench for the entire high school football season, I discovered the cross-country running team, and my life changed forever. Nobody hit me.
Nobody chased me or threw me to the ground. And I was good at it. Really good. I ended up with the school two-mile cross country race record, according to my 1968 year book.
I spent the next 50 years running and mountain climbing, the two "solo" sports I'd discovered that invite us to challenge ourselves. You are competing against your own time in running sports, and when I reached to 20,000 ft. summit of Cotopaxi in South America, it was just me and the mountain standing there. In 2014 at the age of 64, I was living in Honolulu. One day I was running up the big hill in Hawaii, from Diamond Head to the top of Palolo Canyon the very day I was scheduled for a needle biopsy of the tiny bump I'd found on my left breast.
Just a few weeks later, I was quite suddenly stopped in my tracks. I had a mastectomy, a missing left breast and some very real emotional pain to consider.
I've always had a motto that I've shared with people over the years, particularly family members who would question my sanity at every family holiday gathering when I would don my running shoes and head out to hoof it for an hour before the big family meal was served.
"When we stop moving, we stop living," I would say to my family and friends as they shook their heads in dismay, wondering what new screw had broken loose in the logic area of my thinking.
After cancer entered my life, that motto reverberated incessantly in my thoughts. The pumping of my heart that pulsed through my temples as I lay in bed, alarmed by the numbness in my chest and under my left arm, sounded like the pounding of feet on pavement. I dreamed of running, but the stitches would be with me for weeks, along with the drugs that pulled me away from the reality of my disability. Coincidentally, this was the time when an x-ray of my left leg showed significant arthritis, something I had suspected for a long time, but was afraid to confront.
That's when I remembered my motto. It wasn't about a running a marathon. It was simply about moving. Then the truth became clear to me. I had run my last mile. Ever. But even though I was slowed down, I was still active.
Those of us with cancer know all too well how it feels when the certainty of our condition becomes clear. Sometimes it's subtle, and we are given an opportunity to adjust to new thoughts about our lives and our health. But often it's appears like a snap of thunder. "I'm sorry, but you have cancer.” Or, "I'm afraid the chemotherapy was ineffective.” It's a slap in the face that can sting for a very long time if we choose to let it.
And that's when we have the potential to make a liberating and healing choice. We get adept at seeing on the horizon of our health, a wider panorama that might have been overlooked in a perfect world. And at that very moment we can take charge of our lives and begin to look out beyond our own footsteps and see a path we might have missed before. We stop hurting. We stop mourning.
And we start moving.
Radiation and chemotherapy can deplete our energy. So, by starting out slowly and keeping alive that vision of dropping those "cancer chains" that can weigh us down, we can feel better about ourselves and the world around us – a world that is suddenly much more accessible through our own mobility.
If you can walk every day the benefits will be obvious. Perhaps you're only able to move around the house. You can exercise in your chair or in your bed. It's not about how far you go, but about just going, making the effort to move, and as your body moves, so moves your connection to living.