Marathons: Coming to Terms With a Post-Cancer Reality

"I'm signing up for a half marathon this spring. Who's with me?"

My heart sank as I read this on my young friend's Facebook page — a friend still in the early stages of breast cancer treatment with months of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation ahead of her. I recognized this trap. Before breast cancer, I was an amateur athlete. I was never the fastest or the strongest but I found joy in testing my physical strength and endurance. I biked across the U.S. and India and completed triathlons and runs. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and enduring a year of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, I set an ambitious goal for the one-year anniversary of the end of my treatment: to bike 10,000 miles over three months in Asia and spectacularly thumb my nose at the cancer that had stopped me cold and left my body broken.

And why not? The media and the Internet promote glorious stories of cancer patients completing near-impossible physical feats. I took this message to heart. I was a survivor. I had beat cancer. If they could do it, I would too. I imagined myself crossing an imaginary cancer finish line with fists high and head thrown back in victory. I trained for months, gradually increasing the miles and difficulty of each ride, slowly building strength and stamina. But after nearly passing out during a bike ride a month before departure, I had to face facts. My hard work, determination and positive attitude were not enough to restore my health or pedal my damaged body back to pre-cancer strength.

Consultations with my doctors later confirmed my fears. My body had failed. It was not ready to meet my demands and I was not physically ready to reclaim my pre-cancer lifestyle and identity. The months after were the most depressing of my life. In hindsight, I realize that trying to do that ride was completely unreasonable ... and probably dangerous. It certainly delayed my true healing and led to a host of other painful, avoidable medical problems.

I had listened to the hype and myth of cancer survival instead of listening to my body. I paid for that mistake for the next two years. Eventually I reclaimed my body and the activities I loved, but there was nothing glorious or dramatic about my slow crawl back to health. Hours of physical therapy corrected damage from surgery. Trial and error experimentation taught me to manage the lymphedema that hamstrings physical activity. Time was probably the best healer of all.

I reached out to my friend and gently told her my story. I shared with her what I wish someone had shared with me. I urged her to listen to her body. I urged her to give herself time to recover and heal. She did not have to prove anything to anybody about being a strong person. She did not have to gloriously "beat cancer," regardless of the expectations of cancer's battle language or the media.

Everyone wants what's best for her. She has nothing to prove or accomplish to earn their love and support. I asked her to give herself permission to change her plans if that was best. She listened. In many ways, my true healing began when I accepted that the spectacular stories of patients coming back from cancer — the people I saw in the media and who I desperately wanted to emulate — were not my story. My healing began when I realized what most cancer patients eventually learn: Success after cancer is not a singular race or accomplishment. Conversely, success means coming to terms with post-cancer reality that damages our body and challenges our spirit and forces us to face our mortality. Achieving that is harder — and a bigger success — than any marathon.

Leigh Pate lives and works in Seattle. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. Her writing and photography is available at www.LeighPate.com