A real-life guide to working out with cancer, as a caregiver, or anyone dealing with chronic illness
I’ve been a competitive runner for more than 20 years. Running and exercise are my passions and the things I do to relieve stress and find joy, but what happens when your body takes a detour and your fitness routine hits a dead end? You take the “alternate route.”
Many of you know my story so I won’t bore you with many details, but I’m a cancer survivor and I spent months and months in and out of the hospital, in another state, living in a hotel, while I fought. Fought like hell, with everything I had and while that might sound inspiring, believe me, at times it got ugly. Physically and emotionally, my life felt like it wasn’t my own and the number one factor in that change – my inability to run and workout. You see, running was my therapy. It was honestly like a friend. I’d suffered loss and even dealt with my diagnosis during runs and now, that part of my life was being put on hold. BUT notice those two words: on hold.
At first, I managed that void pretty well, but then the weeks of being alone in that Durham hotel, starting taking a toll. Though I had found a Crossfit gym in Durham and was able to do some things, I wanted and needed to run, but all I had the strength to do was walk. So, I’d walk. My dog and I would go up and down this amazing greenway route through the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area. It was called the American Tobacco Trail and it was a God-send. It was something small for me, but it was a start. It gave me an emotional break and I was able to see some hope. I felt better at treatments but I really looked forward to taking my little dog for our walks. Then it happened — one day I decided to try… and run. And I ran. It was like someone gave me back a literal piece of my soul. It was so slow, but to me it felt like I was flying. 1 mile. I ran 1 mile. I never thought as an ultramarathoner I’d be happy with 1 mile, but on that day, it felt amazing. Eventually I regained my strength and honestly found my stride in a pretty short amount of time. So today I have some advice for those of you who might be struggling through sickness, playing the role of caregiver or even having a difficult time finding the motivation to stick to a plan:
1.) GIVE YOURSELF GRACE: Especially if you’re struggling with an illness. Life is so hard already and when your body doesn’t cooperate, it can often feel like it’s just too much. Give yourself some grace. Your body needs to rest and repair and sometimes that means missing out on the things you used to do. It’s ok. Those things will all be waiting for you when you’re rested and ready to re-enter the world.
2.) GIVE YOURSELF SPACE: When you’re battling a disease, you can often feel less than your best and many times your self confidence goes down the drain. You don’t want the world to see you “at your finest” so you avoid exercise and working out altogether. Rather than miss what used to be a reward for your body, find some great workouts you can do in your hospital, hotel room or the comforts of your home. You don’t have to hit your favorite 5:30 class to work up a sweat, and trust me, they’ll still be there when you’re ready to return.
3.) DO SET A SMALL GOAL: I ran a 5k with a group of friends, during my treatment and the goal was to get to the finish. It was such a different role for me, but it still gave me a chance to be competitive and remember what it felt like to be back in a race.
4.) MAKE FITNESS A PART OF YOUR ROUTINE…EVEN IF IT’S A FLEXIBLE ONE: Just make the commitment to yourself every day. Get up and do something active if you possibly can. BUT my number one caveat here is to be flexible for whatever your illness hurls your way. Set a goal, and know it may change, but having that as part of your daily routine will give you something to remind yourself that you..are still.. you.
5.) GET PLENTY OF SLEEP: It’s the one thing I still don’t get enough of, but makes the biggest difference in how we feel. When you’re fighting illness or you’re taking care of someone who is, sleep is the best medicine. That’s not just a cliché’, that’s a fact. Adding exercise to any treatment protocol is just going to add extra stress to your body. But we want it and we need it, we just need sleep even more.
Life doesn’t care what your plans are and most of us are never really prepared for hearing the words, “you’re sick.” But, if it happens, remember to be patient, find a focused fitness path, and be kind to yourself. Come to think of it, those are words we should really embrace every day.