Kelly Irvin is a multi-published novelist and former newspaper reporter who worked in public relations for more than 20 years. She retired from her day job in 2016 after being diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a degenerative motor neuron disease, and stage 4 ovarian cancer. She spends her days writing and loving her family.
Maintaining a good self-image in the face of body changes caused by cancer and chemotherapy is tough. However, exercise was able to boost one cancer patient’s morale and self-image.
I said I wouldn’t talk about it again. Diet, exercise, and weight gain. Yet, here I go. It’s that time of year when many people have made resolutions to exercise and lose weight. Cancer or no cancer, my self-image is tied up in a huge, gnarly knot with my sense of worth and well being. I suspect I’m not the only cancer patient (especially women) who can’t smother the sense of having lost control of my body, in addition to having a deadly disease. I look in the mirror and see a hunch shouldered, gray haired, overweight woman with more than her share of scars. And darn it, I’m not happy about it.
With a new year well underway, I’m pleased to report there is hope. Chemotherapy and mobility limitations aside, it has been possible for me to find ways to exercise and feel better about the way I look. Not joyful, but not so morose either.
After back-to-back diagnoses of a motor neuron disease and stage 4 ovarian cancer in 2016, I was forced to give up an exercise and diet regimen I had employed for most of my adult life. Not being able to lift my feet, balance myself, or bend over put an end to the aerobic exercise (think Jane Fonda, Billy Blanks, and Denise Austin) routines seven days a week. Fatigue and nausea from chemo also made it difficult to even think about exercise. I was told not to worry about my weight, that a higher BMI brought better survival rates. I gained 40 pounds in four years as I experienced two recurrences and went through chemotherapy three times. My cholesterol rose. So did my blood pressure. But my self-image plummeted.
However, last year in September my neurologist adjusted my diagnosis and told me I could exercise as long as I did it sitting down. I admit I was skeptical. How much good could that do?
A lot it seems. I increased the time I spent on the recumbent bicycle to 30 minutes a day, seven days a week. I found a plethora of seated exercise videos on-line. Excellent chair exercise routines are offered by several organizations. I love HASFit (Heart and Soul Fitness) for being so helpful in creating videos for people with limited range of motion and flexibility. A softer, more gentle series called Sit and Be Fit is offered every day on PBS. My favorite, though, are the fitness routines that are accompanied by music and are almost like dancing while sitting.
These are the closest to the routines I did before my mobility became impaired. All of them modify the exercises so they can be done safely for people like me. For someone with balance issues this is critical for safety. Every exercise can be modified to suit the needs of the participant. They’re free and I can do them in the privacy of my own home. I’ve been doing the exercises for four months. It’s been great for morale and my weight has dropped. It’s not a miracle panacea, but when you’ve lost so much to cancer, it’s nice to get that boost — to get back a feeling you thought you’d lost forever.
People love to give cancer patients all kinds of advice about food—even when they themselves have never had cancer. It’s one of my pet peeves. So I won’t do it. For myself, I chose to stop thinking about what I couldn’t or shouldn’t eat and instead focused on what I will eat. I chose healthy foods only and moderate portions. Period. No gimmicks, no paleo, no keto, no Atkins. Just healthy.
Yes, that means the holidays were challenging this year. But I’ve discovered that fruit, especially grapes, pears, oranges, and apples, are as sweet as candy. They also have the added benefit of helping people in chemotherapy or on pain meds with their constant treatment companion—constipation.
Because of the weight gain, I’ve experienced since my diagnosis; I have three sizes of jeans in my closet. I’m happy to report I’ve been able to move down a step to the middle size. Yes, how I look is important to me, but knowing that exercising and eating right are also improving my overall health makes me feel good. Focusing on staving off cancer while ignoring the impact treatment is having on the rest of our body doesn’t make sense. Exercise and diet should always be done with our doctors’ blessing, but we often are the ones who have to initiate the conversation. If this is an issue for you, don’t be afraid to speak up!