On my 29th birthday, I found a 6cm tumor in my body. Happy Birthday to me! I knew, immediately, that something was horribly wrong. 6cm is about the size of an orange. Where did it come from? It wasn’t there just three months earlier when I had had a clinical breast exam.
I told my doctor and she got me an appointment for a few hours later. Her ultrasound confirmed my fears.
“Dena, we need to a biopsy to be sure, but this doesn’t look good to me.” So began a horrifyingly long week of waiting. (Want to know exactly what ran through my head when I found out? Find it here.) But the diagnosis didn’t bring answers, just more questions. More biopsies. More decisions about my care. It’s all kind of an overwhelming blur now, of doctors, scans, needles, pain, stress, anxiety.
I was 29 when I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I capitalize the name on purpose because it was SUCH A BIG DEAL. There is a clear cut 'before' and an 'after.' I went from being the girl who loved to work out, who had a CSA box, who never left the house without sunscreen and took excellent care of herself, to something else entirely. I was a test tube. I was a walking, talking pharmacy. I was a delicate flower. I was weak, slow, puffy and exhausted. I needed so much help. I couldn’t do the things that a few months ago I could do easily. And it was all because of something that I was putting into my body to “make me better.”
Breast Cancer doesn’t really have any side effects. I was tired before, but I was exercising two hours a day, working 10, and going out as much as I could - who wouldn’t be tired? Then suddenly you have cancer and here’s this medicine, this chemo, and instead of making me feel better it becomes impossibly hard to get out of bed to walk my dog.
Going through chemotherapy doesn’t change who you are as a person. You don’t suddenly become more confident, or less interested in fashion, less human. You don’t magically stop caring about how you look, healthy as your self-esteem may be.
I was puffy from the steroids, exhausted from the chemo’s effect on my bone marrow, as vulnerable to germs as a newborn baby (same effect), and riddled with dietary issues that made fresh, uncooked anything forbidden. What I would’ve done for some smoked salmon, a runny egg and some lettuce during that time. How I dreamed about a Pilates mat class or 45 minutes on an elliptical, running out my stress while watching Law and Order.
During my months on chemo, energy became a commodity, like salt or jewels, to be hoarded and stored away for only the most important tasks. Showering was not one of them. (How dirty could I possibly get lying in my bed?) Cooking, walks, physical therapy, just taking care of my poor delicate body was my total focus, but it was SO HARD.
When before I could be seen at the gym, impressively lifting heavier weights than the other girls and doing crazy, jumpy supersets - suddenly I couldn’t lift my arm over my head. The lymph node biopsy required severing the muscles in my right arm. They knit back together too tightly. It was painful.
But even when it was really bad, it was never as bad as I thought it was going to be. Humans aren’t built to feel bad all the time. Everything is relative. There were days where maybe I didn’t feel like my real self, but I felt normal enough to go for a long walk, to laugh with my friends, even to go to a party.
'Humans aren’t built to feel bad all the time. Everything is relative.'
And, in the gentlest, doctor approved way possible, I started to work my way back to health.
Something that a trainer at the JCCSF taught me had always stuck in my head, and it came back during this time. Make measurable goals for yourself. Track your success, and celebrate it: Every. Single. Day.
So that is what I did.
I diligently performed the physical therapy I needed to get back full mobility in my arm. Every inch higher that I could lift that arm was a triumph. “Look baby!” I would proclaim every day when my fiance came home, showing him proudly the millimeter difference that he probably couldn’t see.
Things I once took for granted, I suddenly appreciated so much more. I was grateful to be able to grab something from a high shelf. I was grateful for the effortlessness of dressing myself again.
Inch by inch I started lifting my arm. Then I started lifting it with weights. Now, just 20 short months after I began chemo, I am back to being the girl who lifts the heaviest weights in the room.
Before I got sick, when I was 29 and riddled with all that body anxiety, I just wanted to be 5 pounds thinner. Now, I would still like to be 5 pounds thinner, but instead I force myself every day to focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t. Instead of griping, I force myself to be grateful that I can get up, get out of bed, take a long walk with the dog, go to the gym, workout, go to work. I took so much for granted before, but I will never, ever do that again.
It’s glorious to be able to my move my body again. The feel of my muscles contracting and working. The sweetness of working up a sweat and flushing all that bad stuff out of your body. Every day I get better, stronger, more like the me before Breast Cancer tried to bring me down.
I know how scary it is to walk into a gym when you’re not feeling fit, healthy, or strong. I understand that fear and self-doubt. But I also think it’s STUPID. It’s not helping anybody. It’s not good for you. Every single day, millimeter by millimeter, you get closer to your goals just by showing up. Just by trying.
Say yes. Embrace your positivity. There is so much strength to be found in weakness, because there is nowhere to go but up.