At every turn, patients who are seriously ill lose control of their bodies. Disease wreaks havoc on humans – lack of appetite, muscle wasting, depression, weight loss – the list goes on. And if all that weren’t enough, the treatment for the disease is often times equally insulting to the human form. Chemotherapy causes hair loss, vomiting and other unpleasant side effects. Loss of appetite leads to weakness and fatigue. Getting blood drawn frequently can make you feel like a pin cushion.
And as any of my patients will tell you, living with an illness is like riding a rollercoaster. Some days you are invincible and feeling like yourself. Thoughts of your disease only occasionally creep to the forefront of your mind. It feels good just to feel normal. But, as with a rollercoaster, reaching the top of the hill means the descent is close at hand. As you plunge down the steep decline, your view of the horizon fades and the ride gets awfully bumpy. You feel out of control and it’s difficult to see just how low you are going to drop. Exercise, for some, is a way to regain some of that control.
JoAnn is a sparkling, vivacious woman in her 50s. She has always been kind to her body – no smoking, an occasional drink, no drug use. She exercises, in one form or another, every day: walking, golfing, yoga, jogging on the treadmill. For her, exercise is not a chore but a pleasure.
In the Winter of 2007, she was diagnosed with an aggressive ovarian cancer. She underwent laparoscopic surgery to remove the tumor and was back at the gym a few days later. She continued to recover quickly and soon began chemotherapy. Her first infusion and the day that followed went off without a hitch. She kept up her busy schedule and was able to walk a few miles in the cool spring air. But the next afternoon, as she was waiting for an appointment to begin, her roller coaster crested over the hill and began its descent, screaming down the tracks at top speed. In what seemed like mere moments, she recalls “everything drained from me, and I became fatigued and exhausted.” Her body felt like she had the worst case of the flu you can imagine. She left the building before her meeting ever got underway. She went straight home, got into bed, curled up into a ball and couldn’t move.
For any of us, feeling that way is miserable anguish. For a woman who walks five miles on an average weekday, this was sheer torture. She stayed in bed all day and through the night. When she finally stood up to go to the bathroom, she broke out in a cold sweat, her skin got cool and clammy, she lost consciousness and fell to the floor, hitting her head on the way down. She awoke to her husband calling her name. She was scared, but alright.
“This is so not me!” she exclaimed during one of our conversations. “I have to figure this part out. I’m listening to my body now more than ever before. That’s the hardest thing: slowing down when you are an active person. You just have to ‘go with it.'” By “go with it,” she means that she has to accept that for the few days after chemotherapy, her body is not her own. It has been briefly taken over by a highly toxic chemical that is fighting her disease.
During treatment, JoAnn kept active as much as she could. As the effects of chemotherapy wore off, she began gentle exercises at first, then more strenuous activity as time went on. It’s now over two years since her diagnosis and JoAnn is feeling good and is as active as ever. Exercise keeps her spirits up, maintains her strength and endurance and, as some studies suggest, might keep other cancers at bay.