At age 48, more than a decade after being treated for cancer and enduring chemotherapy and early menopause, I’m amazed to find myself in the best shape in my life. So many of us go to exhaustive lengths to explore and pursue options for cancer risk-management—we make multiple doctor appointments, undergo intense screening, and sometimes have surgery. But throughout our lives, many of us, myself included, often neglect fitness, a critical way to improve our health and longevity.
In high school, I felt invulnerable. I took my health for granted and never took fitness seriously. During college, my bad habits got worse: I stayed up all night, smoked and ate chocolate in excess. When a dear friend came home from a lifestyle program at Hilton Head Health Institute looking and feeling phenomenal, I vowed to do the same as soon as my time and wallet allowed. But the rigors of graduate school got in the way. It wasn’t until I completed veterinary school and my internship that I finally had time to focus on weight loss. I was no longer smoking, but I was carrying about 60 additional pounds on my 5’ 2” frame. I was also sedentary and in the worst shape of my life. If I didn’t make a change, I knew my health would decline.
Before beginning my new career, I took two weeks off to “get serious” about my health at Hilton Head Health. For the first time, I made exercise and a healthy diet a priority, and I gained control of my health and well-being. The 5 most impactful things I learned and assimilated were:
- Pick a realistic goal. I hated to hear that because I didn’t want something realistic! I wanted to lose 60 pounds, and I wanted to do it right away. Intellectually, I knew that was unrealistic given the time I had for exercise. I remember wanting to cry. I would not going home at my ideal weight, or any weight that was even close. Over the years I have learned the wisdom of these words. I am finally at my ideal weight, but it has taken a lot of effort, determination, focus and time.
- Find an exercise you love and exercise most days of the week. In the past it was rollerblading. But in the last four years I have developed a passion for tennis.
- Who’s in charge? This addressed my inner voice, the one that made excuses and justified why I needed or deserved a cookie (or two or three) or large quantities of peanut butter.
- Practice the "one-minute rule." Sometimes just doing one minute of an exercise can help you overcome fatigue and get you moving. Before you know it, one minute can turn into two, or thirty, or even an hour of activity. If not, you are still no worse off than you were sitting on the couch.
- The biggest benefits come from small changes.
I lost 4 lbs at the Institute and then went home and lost another 20. I was on my way and thought my newfound body would be permanent. I did great, until I got pregnant. Suddenly I was too tired to exercise, the baby in my body was in control of my eating (so I told myself), and my doctor gave me permission to gain weight. Hard to believe that the child inside of me was only 5 lb. 13 oz. at birth. Where did that additional 44-lbs come from? I had trouble losing the weight. During the summer after my son’s first birthday, I made a pledge to myself to get back in shape. By following the program that had worked for me before, I once again gained control: my body was fit, and I was happy with how I looked and felt.
And then, at 33, I was diagnosed “out of the blue” with breast cancer, and subsequently learned that I carried a BRCA2 gene mutation. In addition to breast cancer treatments, I underwent a bilateral ophorectomy and hysterectomy and premature menopause at age 35. Between cancer treatments and menopause, I regained quite a bit of weight and soon (it seemed), I was back to my heaviest.
Like many cancer survivors and previvors, between surgical scars and weight gain, I struggled with body image issues that further undermined my self esteem and confidence. For the first time in my life, I also battled clinical depression. The medications that saved me also sapped my energy and made me less inclined to work-out. I knew I needed help and was fortunate to be able to return to Hilton Head Health to renew what I had already learned, and once again see results. As an advocate for survivors and previvors, I meet many women who believe that achieving weight loss after treatment, early menopause, or surgery is impossible. I’m here to say it’s not.
Although I pay attention to my health and fitness all year long, I now devote one week each year to renew my commitment to fitness. It is a gift I give myself and one that is well worth it. It reinforces what I already know and gives me the incentive to maintain my weight and conditioning for another year. Each year I find that my commitment is stronger and my fitness level is a little better than it was the prior year. This is even more important as new research is linking body mass to cancer risk and recurrence.
As a patient advocate I’m passionate about motivating others to do whatever they can to live healthier and longer. An important part of my message is that it’s never too late to start getting fit. But I also hope to inspire our younger members to become and stay more active. Research shows that high-risk women who exercise in their teens tend to have a later onset of breast cancer than those high-risk women who stay inactive at a young age. FORCE offers information about fitness and lifestyle at our conferences, in our newsletters, and in a new section of our website on lifestyle, fitness and cancer. We have partnered with Dr. Kathryn Schmitz, the lead investigator in the WISER Sister Study to determine whether steady exercise can significantly lower breast cancer risk in high-risk women. Whenever possible, I share my own personal experience and struggles with weight. I have been both unfit and fit long enough to know how seductive and insidious inertia can be and how rewarding and exhilarating an active lifestyle can be. A hopeless spirit can lead to a sedentary body. But it is possible to change.
Research shows that people who add even a little activity to their sedentary lifestyle achieve some of the largest health gains. Sometimes we need help, but not everyone has access to lifestyle change programs like Hilton Head Health. There are many other resources for people who want to become more fit. TV shows like A&E’s Heavy offer practical tips and feature motivational stories about people who took charge of their health and became active. Programs like Weight Watchers offer affordable tools for monitoring caloric intake, and provide support from others with similar weight challenges. For sedentary previvors and women at high-risk for breast cancer and who have not had mastectomy, the WISER Sister Study offers involvement in research, access to a personal trainer, and at the end of the study, a free treadmill! Other options include joining a gym or online fitness community or finding an exercise partner. Try adding just a bit more exercise each day. Keep a daily record of everything you eat. Blog about your experience. Like most things that are worthwhile, fitness is a journey of small steps. Positive change requires more than education, it requires commitment.
Who knows, you may become the motivation for others to follow in your footsteps.