Last summer I wrote this about my cancer experience: “I described this journey as a triathlon: bike (chemo), swim (surgery), and run (five years of ovarian suppression and hormone blockers). I guess I am here finishing up the swim. Tomorrow will be three weeks since surgery. Every day the pain lessens, and my boobs look more like body parts, and less like Frankenstein’s head. But as I end this leg of the race, I am feeling that familiar dread of the unknown. What will the run be like? Is my body strong enough to keep going? What does forced menopause look like for a 36-year-old body? What will the side effects be of these new meds? When will I get my full energy back? How long until my hair doesn’t scream “cancer patient”?”
Today, (about 14 months post double-mastectomy), I completed my first triathlon. I used the triathlon metaphor as a way for me to visualize my breast cancer journey. I said the swim was like the surgery because I was a swimmer when I was young and had a lot of experience with it, and after Alex was born I had a pretty intense surgery to remove a blood clot- so surgery was not new to me either.
I said chemo was like the bike ride, because I had no experience riding for long distances, and it was the part that scared me the most.
And I said the five years of pills and ovarian suppression were like the run. Because it seemed the most doable and familiar stretch of the journey– I completed three half-marathons before having kids.
I wanted to do a real triathlon so that I could prove to myself that my body was back. To prove that it belonged to me, that it wasn’t a prisoner to my port, the heaviness of chemo, or the slow movements after surgery. I wanted to feel strong again.
Last night it was hard to sleep.
I was scared and excited.
I felt ready, and unsure.
I felt like a chapter was closing, and another was opening.
This morning there was a lot of waiting (there always is with unknown and scary things), and then before I knew it I was in the water, swimming, and breathing.
If I concentrated on the full distance, I felt overwhelmed. But if I focused on Joel walking along the shore of the lake taking pictures of me, I felt okay. I kept moving forward.
I wore a swimsuit, not a tri-suit, so I am sure a few people got a good laugh at me trying to squeeze myself into some spandex biker shorts with wet legs. And then I was on the bike. At first it was nice. I didn’t feel too hot, I felt my breathing starting to regulate, and the sun and wind were at my back. Then people started zooming by me, and I started to slow. I kept thinking, how many miles has it been? Can I really bike 15 miles? But I forced myself to remember chemo. Chemo was the bike. I can do this. I focused on keeping my legs moving. Just keep moving forward.
The bike was finished, now the run. My legs felt like dead weight, I really wanted to sit down. Just rest for a few minutes. But I pushed on. I focused on my breathing, one foot in front of the other. Just keep moving forward. And then I saw it. The finish line. I couldn’t help but smile. I did it.
My body is back. It belongs to me. I wore a swimsuit and biker shorts to run –I didn’t even need a sports bra (implants don’t bounce!). My hair no longer screams “cancer patient”, in fact I don’t think anyone except my few friends and family members there knew I had cancer. My cancer journey isn’t defining me in the way it once was. I am someone new. I am strong, and experienced at focusing on the small moments, movements, and emotions that make the long game possible.
No matter what comes my way, I know that I can concentrate on my breathing, put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving forward.