Using Exercise for Healing and Health: Jennifer Smith
Physical activity is important for helping your body and emotions after a breast cancer diagnosis. Jennifer Smith, of New York City, struggled with physical concerns even though she had been very active before being diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer at age 37. Her experiences can help those who are less accustomed to exercise find good ways to be more active, support healing and gain strength.
Robin: What activities did you enjoy before your diagnosis?
Jenn: I was on the swim team in high school and the bowling team. After high school, I got involved in karate and kickboxing and became really focused and disciplined in martial arts. I picked up yoga, loved it and trained as a yoga teacher.
Robin: Were you worried about how treatment might affect your activity level?
Jenn: I was devastated because I thought that I would lose my athletic ability. I had an oncologist tell me I would definitely gain 15 to 20 pounds on tamoxifen. I also heard some pretty horrible lymphedema and cording stories. I heard a lot of things that, as an athlete, really terrified me.
Robin: How did you handle the physical challenges after a single mastectomy?
Jenn: Sadly, no health professional I was seeing said anything about range of motion, rehab or physical therapy. I did not know to ask for it. My surgeons were in upstate New York where my parents were and there’s no cancer center there, just a general hospital. There was no support.
So, I had to do a lot on my own. I found a fingers-crawling-up-and-down-the-wall exercise from an online source of basic range-of-motion techniques. I did gentle yoga. I tried to be real slow and deliberate and smart about it because I didn’t want to screw anything up. I had reconstruction at the same time and with the expander in for 8 months, it left my chest really lopsided and awkward. I couldn’t do many yoga poses that required my chest to be on the floor.
After a second surgery, an axillary node surgery removing more lymph nodes, I did the same range-of-motion exercise. That surgery was easier to recover from but delayed my chemo for a month while I healed.
Robin: You had chemotherapy afterward in Philadelphia, where you were living and working. How did you use exercise to help during that phase?
Jenn: I did yoga as much as possible, probably 3 to 5 times a week during weeks when I wasn’t having chemo. On chemo weeks, I would do yoga on the day before I had treatment.
In the chemo lounge, I always had to wait. I had my doctor’s appointment and then I’d have a scheduled chemo time, but I would wait at least an hour-and-a-half, sometimes 2 hours, and that made me insane. Because I already don’t want to be there, I’m terribly anxious and scared, and then you make me wait. Plus, I was always the youngest person there. Everyone else was much older and sicker, which was a real mental stumbling block.
I was so annoyed by the situation, I started bringing my yoga mat. I put my mat in the corner of the waiting room and I’d be over there, doing gentle yoga. It made me feel so much better and also gave me some control that I was not just sitting there, waiting.
I walked right after my chemo sessions. The hospital had nice grounds. I would walk slowly with my parents or boyfriend and have lunch. I could eat after the chemo but, by 5 p.m., I was sort of in a twilight for the next couple of days. I would still try to walk during those days, even if it was just around two or three blocks.
I walked every day at work, no matter how tired I felt. Every time I did, I was so amazed. I could be dead tired at work and then I would just take a half-hour walk and it was like my gas tank had more gas back in it.
Robin: Did your martial arts background help?
Jenn: The steely discipline of karate helped me get through the crap of cancer, to just push through doctors’ appointments, surgeries, fear, exhaustion, and all the mental turmoil.
I didn’t want to exercise. I almost didn’t want to do anything. I would force myself and even with just walking or a gentle yoga class, I would always feel better. There was never a time during chemo that I did something physical and I thought, “Oh my god, I feel worse!” I always felt better.
Robin: Do you use activity now with any ongoing effects?
Jenn: I’ve been on tamoxifen for 5-and-a-half years and my joints are stiffer and achier than they would be for somebody my age. To help that, I exercise, I walk, I do yoga. I discovered in the last couple years that there’s barely any athletic activity I don’t like. I live in New York City now and go surfing off Long Island, ice skate in the city, ice climb, snowshoe and hike in the Adirondack Mountains. At this point in my life after cancer, I just want to try as much as I can for as long as I can, because I don’t know how much time I have.
Robin: Do you deal with fear of recurrence through exercise?
Jenn: When I’m doing an activity, I’m not thinking about recurrence. The ideal for yoga is you’re in the moment: mind, body and spirit are 100 percent where you are. In surfing or ice climbing, if my focus slips, I might slip. You have to be really focused all the time. I don’t think of anything, except my next move maybe.
Robin: How can someone who’s less into exercise than you are add activity during treatment and afterwards?
Jenn: My No. 1 thing was always walking. Just see how far you can go. If you can go around the block and still feel pretty good during treatment, maybe go around another block. Just slowly incorporate it. Gentle restorative yoga is good, not the crazy yoga where people are doing handstands.
For afterwards, find something you love to do. Salsa dancing, rock climbing — if you’re really excited about it then it’s not a chore to exercise after cancer. Don’t judge yourself. Take lessons. You can’t just decide you want to climb and start climbing. I love stand-up paddleboarding and took classes. It’s a very accessible sport. You do it on a lake, it’s calming, it’s beautiful and fun.
I have a very arthritic knee. In yoga class, I can’t do certain poses and in rock climbing it can be a problem. But I work around it. Even if you have some physical limitations, you can modify almost anything for your body.
Be brave. Try something new. It’s easy to be intimidated, but you went through cancer, right? That’s harder than anything.
This article was supported by the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number 1 U58 DP005403, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.