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Marathons … The Post-Cancer Body

imageCURE Magazine published my essay:  Marathons: Coming to terms with a post-cancer Reality.  You can read the published article  here.

CURE is a magazine most cancer patients come across at some point during their treatment … They print a physical magazine quarterly and copies are widely available at cancer centers and doctor’s offices … And patients and their loved ones spend a lot of time in waiting rooms reading magazines.  Subscriptions are free by signing up online at their website.  And they have extensive content online at www.curetoday.com and social media.  I’m excited this article was published by CURE because they have such a strong audience of cancer patients, caregivers and families.  I hope it will help others avoid my mistakes.

The text of the article printed in CURE is below:

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Marathons
“I’m signing up for a half marathon this spring. Who’s with me?”

My heart sank as I read this on my young friend’s Facebook page … a friend still in the early stages of breast cancer treatment with months of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation ahead of her.

I recognized this trap.

Before breast cancer, I was an amateur athlete … never the fastest or the strongest but I found joy in testing my physical strength and endurance. I biked across the US and India and completed triathlons and runs. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and enduring a year of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, I had set an ambitious goal for the one-year anniversary of the end of my treatment: to bike 10,000 miles over three months in Asia and spectacularly thumb my nose at the cancer that had stopped me cold and left my body broken.

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Crossing the Mississippi River while Biking across the USA … Before cancer

And why not? The media and the Internet promote glorious stories of cancer patients completing near-impossible physical feats. And I took this message to heart. I was a survivor. I had beat cancer. If they could do it, I would too. I imagined myself crossing an intangible cancer finish line with fists high and head thrown back in victory.

I trained for months, gradually increasing the miles and difficulty of each ride and slowly building strength and stamina. But after nearly passing out during a bike ride a month before departure, I had to face facts. My hard work, determination and positive attitude were not enough to restore my health or pedal my damaged body back to pre-cancer strength. Consultations with my doctors later confirmed my fears. My body had failed. It was not ready to meet my demands and I was not physically ready to reclaim my pre-cancer lifestyle and identity.

The months after were the most depressing of my life. In hindsight I realize that trying to do that ride was completely unreasonable … and probably dangerous. It certainly delayed my true healing, and led to a host of other painful, avoidable medical problems. I had listened to the hype and myth of cancer survival instead of listening to my body. And I paid for that mistake for the next two years.

Eventually I reclaimed my body … and the activities I loved. But there was nothing glorious or dramatic about my slow crawl back to health. Hours of physical therapy corrected damage from surgery. Trial and error experimentation taught me to manage the lymphedema that hamstrings physical activity. And time was probably the best healer of all.

So I reached out to my friend and gently told her my story. I shared with her what I wish someone had shared with me. I urged her to listen to her body. To give herself time to recover and heal. She did not have to prove anything to anybody about being a strong person. She did not have to gloriously “beat cancer”, regardless of the expectations of cancer’s battle language or the media. Everyone wants what’s best for her … she has nothing to prove or accomplish to earn their love and support. I asked her to give herself permission to change her plans if that was best. And she listened.

In many ways, my true healing begin when I accepted that the spectacular stories of patients coming back from cancer – the people I saw in the media and who I desperately wanted to emulate – were not my story. When I realized what most cancer patients eventually learn … that success after cancer is not a singular race or accomplishment. Rather success means coming to terms with post-cancer reality that damages our body and challenges our spirit and forces us to face our mortality. And achieving that is harder – and a bigger success – than any marathon.
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Leigh Pate lives and works in Seattle, WA. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. Her writing and photography is available at www.LeighPate.com.

2 thoughts on “Marathons … The Post-Cancer Body

  1. Ms. Pate exhibited great strength before and after her cancer diagnosis; strength of character as well as physical endurance. I met Ms Pate shortly after she returned from cycling in India when she was the keynote presenter about her journey for a charitable event in Vancouver BC. Her interaction with the people of India was very moving as were the faces and scenes she captured with her camera. Ms. Pate immerses herself in her adventures and experiences so I can see how difficult it was for to make this journey back from cancer treatment. She is used to setting goals and working hard to achieve them. To take a step back after cancer treatment would have been a new challenge for her but she found her way through and beyond and is helping others with their journey back from cancer. Nothing to prove, no one to impress, just finding her way back to who she was and who she is now and sharing what she learned along the way with others. Cancer sufferers do not want to be warriors. They don’t want to be put up on a pedestal as survivors. They are people doing what they have to do to live a healthy life again. Thank you Leigh for sharing your story.

  2. Thank you Sharon. I’m so touched by your words. Presenting to your organization after biking through India was such a wonderful experience. Not just to help Room to Read and support their mission. But because presenting forced me to pull all the blog entries and photos together and find the real story and personal growth and learn the real lessons from that travel. So thanks to you and Doria for taking a chance on a travel blogger from Seattle to entertain your auditorium full of supporters. Doing that first presentation was a catalyst that helped me become a better traveler, storyteller and writer. And gave me confidence in my photography and go on to take it to art shows and enter some pieces – and actually get awards – in a couple of contests. You are right that there are parallels in coming back from cancer and biking across India. Unpredictability. Physical and mental challenges. Opportunities to observe and learn from others and experience deeply along the way. Opportunities to give back at the end to help and share with others. Sounds like another article … 🙂

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