Cancer and Exercise

September 26, 2016

A former competitive runner discovers the healing link between mastectomies, meditation and marathons.

It was just two years ago when I was newly diagnosed with male breast cancer when I was forced to give up the activity that most connected me with my body, my passion for life and my good health: running. It’s difficult for a non-runner to understand just what in the world would possess an intelligent human being to dash about for long hours when there are so many other things one might be engaged in. But from the time I was a kid in elementary school until my 64th year of life, I bolted and galloped, leapt and sprinted. Running was not just exercise, it was my meditation.

“Hold your horses,” you may be thinking as you read this. “Isn’t meditation supposed to be quiet, tranquil and, most of all, still?”

Spending a year living in a Zen Buddhist Monastery taught me a lot about what meditation is—and isn’t.

According to the writings of Lama Thubten Yeshe: “Buddhist meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed. Simply observing how your mind is responding to the sense world as you go about your business — walking, talking, shopping, whatever – can be a really perfect meditation and bring a perfect result.”

Meditation in its purist form may occur anywhere and at any time. While peeling vegetables. Taking a shower. Waiting for a bus. Running a marathon.

And so the links between exercise and well-being, meditation and movement, became clear to me long before cancer entered my life. And after my mastectomy, the importance of remaining active became even more compelling, though my legs had definitely slowed a bit by then.

Exercise, like laughter, releases chemicals in our bodies that are both beneficial and stress-reducing. When you exercise, your body creates endorphins. Endorphins act as an analgesic, which means they diminish the perception of pain. They also act as sedatives. They are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord and many other parts of your body, and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neuron receptors that endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines.

Regular exercise has been proven to:

• Reduce stress

• Ward off anxiety and feelings of depression

• Boost self-esteem

• Improve sleep

Some of my most poignant inspirations, not to mention some good song lyrics, were hatched in my imagination as I sped along the dusty trails. As a writer and musician, I actually composed an entire stage musical while running, dictating two acts and twelve songs into a tiny tape recorder.

During my running years, I made it a point to visit trails and tracks in as many countries as possible, with some memorable miles along the Great Wall of China, around the foot paths in Nepal, beside the fjords of Norway and over the cobblestones of Poland. I was lucky to run hundreds of 10K races, scores of half marathons and 13 full marathons, finally qualifying to run the Boston Marathon at the age of 59, fulfilling a life-long dream.

But soon after my cancer diagnosis and mastectomy surgery, I was diagnosed with chronic arthritis in both knees, the result I am told of many years of, you guessed it, running.

While arthritis and not breast cancer was the cause for me reluctantly giving up my beloved sport, the timing was unfortunate since running offered such a profound stress release. It would have come in handy during my long weeks of recovery.

But my personal philosophy has always been, “when we stop moving, we stop living,” so my daily runs became walks. Now, with ever-advancing aches and pains, I have taken up the sport of off-road bicycling. I looked forward to each opportunity of getting outside and feeling the sun warming my heart and improving my disposition.

My workouts, and indeed my life, have evolved over the years through what I call “meditation on the move,” and the positive results have been profound.

For now, my cancer is under control. I believe that exercise, no matter what form it takes, can offer wonderful benefits to our health and healing. And even though my long running career is over, sometimes as I sit quietly outside, allowing the memories of those active days to waft through my imagination, I can see it all so clearly again...

Imagine lacing up your shoes in a secluded meadow. You sense the fragrance of oak leaves and sage as the rising sun reaches to warm the damp earth. Birds of all kinds begin to stir, and everywhere the sounds and smells of changing seasons beckon you to leave your fatigue behind and venture out into the red blaze of the revitalizing sunrise. You launch yourself out and into the surprises beyond the bend, following the path ahead and trusting that each new experience will enrich and renew you, and bring you one step closer to the unbridled spirit of nature.

This is the healing that comes with our connection to Earth and spirit and the serenity that can move us forward in our active race with cancer survival.


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