When your doctor first says the word “cancer,” you don’t hear any of the other important words like “Stage 0” or “non-invasive.” When she says, “You will 100% survive this, it’s just a matter of how,” you want to say, “Yeah, but….” Growing up, I watched my grandmother endure breast cancer and the effects of treatment, so I immediately feared the worst when I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in my left breast in May 2021.
At 48, I had otherwise never felt better about my health. I was faster, stronger, lighter and more fit than I was in college. I was serious about my diet and fitness. I’d been doing CrossFit workouts 4-5 times a week at Kanna Fitness for a few years, and the results were dramatic. I looked lean for the first time in decades. My functional fitness improved. As an avid gardener, it was easier to shovel and spread 20 yards of mulch in the spring. I was no longer winded going up flights of stairs. My blood pressure and resting heart rate decreased, and my confidence soared with every new movement I discovered and every personal best.
With my diagnosis, I didn’t fear dying since I knew my cancer was early and treatable. I feared life without the activities I loved and potentially debilitating side effects of cancer treatment. I feared the active and vibrant way of life I loved abruptly ending. Ultimately, I chose to “treat” my cancer by having my surgeon cut it off, along with both of my breasts – a major surgery.
The double mastectomy left me with a single incision spanning my chest – armpit to armpit. It gave me the lowest chance of cancer recurrence, and it allowed me to bypass radiation treatments to my chest and years of hormone therapy and its unpleasant side effects. Because implants carry health risks, and I wanted to get back to my life as quickly as possible, I chose to skip cosmetic reconstruction. I learned that my choice is associated with a growing movement of women who proudly “live flat” after cancer. These women’s stories resonated with me, and I thought, “These are my people!”
Now, just 10 weeks after surgery, I am back to doing everything I was doing before – including the CrossFit workouts I love. I never needed more than ibuprofen to manage my post-surgery pain. The cancer is gone. My physical therapist told me there is nothing left to work on. She is blown away by my progress – and so am I! How did I get back to my life so quickly?
People sometimes compare relationships to a bank account: you need to make deposits and invest if you expect to make a withdrawal when you need to. I compare health to bank accounts, too. When I was seeking information about the typical timeline for double mastectomy recovery, I found there was little consistency. Some women take months to recover while others, like me, take only a few weeks. What women who recover quickly and completely have in common is good health and fitness prior to surgery.
When I was diagnosed, I felt like my body had betrayed me. I felt like everything I’d been doing was for nothing. Then, a good friend suggested I look at it differently. She told me my body had not let me down, and it was because of my fitness level and good choices that my body would get me through this time. She said, “This will be merely a speed bump for you.”
I wanted to believe her, so before surgery I started preparing my body even more. I continued my CrossFit workouts, but I focused even more on safety. I added daily stretching for my arm and shoulder mobility. I stopped all alcohol consumption, drank lots of water, ate even cleaner than normal, and got my sleep.
I’m not the only one who believes in “training” for surgery. In fact, physicians are implementing these programs for their patients all across the country. For example, the University of Pittsburgh has a program called “Enhanced Recovery After Surgery” to help patients recover more quickly, improving their quality of life and cutting healthcare costs significantly. My training for surgery began years ago when I started doing high-intensity CrossFit workouts that incorporate heavy weightlifting, short but intense bursts of cardiovascular activity and even gymnastics movements. These workouts subject the body to trauma each time – trauma that the body gets good at overcoming quickly as muscles repair themselves and overall conditioning improves.
Over time, these are the “deposits” to the health bank account that you can withdraw later when you have surgery or get sick. I am convinced my CrossFit workouts were integral in my body’s ability to bounce back so quickly.
After surgery, I couldn’t lift anything heavier than 5 pounds for a few weeks. I couldn’t do pullups and pushups, or reach my arms overhead, but I could walk, ride a recumbent bike and gently stretch. My surgeon encouraged me to get moving as soon as possible. The day my surgical drains were removed, I wrapped my chest in an ace bandage, put on a loose top and headed to the gym. I walked for 20 minutes on the treadmill, came home and collapsed on the bed for a nap. But, I never looked back. Every day, I did my stretches and walked, rode the bike, or used the stair climber. I missed CrossFit though, so I started going to the Sunday “open gym” as soon as I could. I curled the tiniest weights I could find and did rows with just the training bar. Soon after, I was able to attend select workouts, and the Kanna coaches helped me scale movements to accommodate my changing needs.
It’s unfortunate that sometimes it takes something as scary as a cancer diagnosis to change your perspective, but it’s impossible afterwards to look at life the same way. I now have even more evidence that my body can do anything – it’s the vessel that carries out what my mind desires. Besides the countless benefits I enjoyed from CrossFit prior to surgery, I now have an even stronger why for continuing. I don’t have to exercise today, I get to exercise today!