Exercising Those Demons

Posted on: December 12th, 2014 by

Several months ago, I joined a new gym. My previous fitness center had too many problems — too expensive, too many insensitive personal trainers, too many members who thought they were training for the Olympics, and eventually too many people turning the place into a meat market.

I never fared well in the meat-market culture, and I have fared even worse since breast cancer.

Maybe it’s because some of my meat — namely my breasts — was amputated and replaced with artificial substitutes. While I was a member of this fitness center, those body-image demons would emerge.

So I bid adieu to the meat market, and found an excellent, new, inexpensive facility in my park district. The gym meets my requirements: an indoor walking track and a pool. The weight machines are a bonus. The indoor track is fantastic and will serve me well. Oh, and get this, for the geriatric and/or ailing crowd, there are great classes like Aqua Yoga and Aqua Arthritis in a smaller warm pool. Not only do these classes provide great exercise, but they meet one’s (OK, my) needs for low-impact relaxation.

When I joined the Aqua Arthritis class, however, the senior citizens eyed me suspiciously. After all, I look young and fit. In fact, I look like I’ve never had an unhealthy day in my life. What was I doing in this class, some asked me in a friendly manner. I perceived that the instructor was also curious.

After all, what serious medical problems could someone like me have had?

Each student was forthright with the instructor and each other about his or her medical problems — knee replacement surgery, severe arthritis, back problems, and so on. When I finally told them about my cancer trauma, a hush fell over the group. It turns out that that someone as young- and fit-looking as me belongs in this group after all.

No one can ever judge a book by its cover. I should know — I put up a facade of emotional health, but the cancer demons have muddied my pages but good. And, disappointingly, although I removed myself from the meat market, body-image issues have continued.

I’m still self-conscious about my body in the locker room but also, oddly, when I’m swimming laps. The large pool’s lap lanes are sometimes brimming to the maximum, and I have to share a lane with someone. The last few times I shared a lane, I got paranoid that the other swimmer was looking at my fake body, despite my modest, one-piece swimsuit. Not a rational fear, but there you have it.


In addition, this pool has a deeper drop than other pools I’ve swum in. The last third or so of the pool has a 10-foot drop, and even though I can swim tolerably okay and have successfully swam over the deep end several times, I get scared that I will drown. Nevermind that lifeguards are ever-present. Looking at the water, I can tell it is so deep and I am so small in relation to it. This fact, plus my body issue demons, have overwhelmed and intimidated me. So I did what any backward-thinking individual would do:

I stopped swimming.

Some friends (OK, many) have pressured me to start swimming again to get the exercise my body and psyche need and crave. To complicate matters, this year has brought foot surgery, a long recovery, and most recently plantar fasciitis, making walking-as-exercise impossible for now. And that really sucks because a) I love walking and b) I don’t have body-image issues when I walk.

Despite my hesitation to start swimming again, I’ve decided to take the plunge and swim laps again.

My gym bag is by the door.

Tomorrow my swimming hiatus ends.

If I have to share a lane, and sit with body-image issues, so be it.

Before cancer socked me good, I was athletic and confident in my body. Now — multiple physical and invisible scars later — I am a novice once again.

And as I tread uneasily across the deep end of the pool, I will try to be brave. And I will embrace gratitude that my inner strength is greater than my fear of drowning in the unknown.


Do you find exercise is more of a challenge because of cancer and its treatments?

Feel free to share your stories. I would love to read about them.

Tags: , , ,

10 Responses to Exercising Those Demons

  1. Claudia Schmidt had this to say about that:

    Interesting about the swimming. I have actually found that swimming is one of the few exercises I can do that actually feel good and seem to stretch my upper body/chest muscles after the reconstruction, without any pain or discomfort, perhaps because the water offers resistance without weight? Not sure, but I was pleasantly surprised that doing the breaststroke or side stroke actually felt good as it stretched my chest muscles. BUT, I don’t think I’d be very interested in swimming in the cold winter months. Funny, how you talk about your body looking so young, I feel a similar way. I’m almost embarrassed. I’m sure there are those at the beach in the summer who see me in my (modest) bathing suit who are sure I’ve had my breasts lifted or enhanced, when of course, that’s not the case at all. It’s all just the new “me.” I’m learning to get used to it…not really any alternative and it could be worse, given the alternatives, I suppose.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Claudia, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m so glad swimming has proved a great exercise for you! Yes, people are quick to judge us on our appearance without knowing what lies underneath figuratively and literally.

      I’m not a really strong swimmer, but I can do laps for an hour, so I feel good about that. And I agree with you that swimming is a great exercise. In fact, I think it is the best in terms of fitness, working muscles, and working out with the least chance of sustaining injury.

      I always feel great after a good swim.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. Sharon Greene had this to say about that:

    For me, the biggest problem with swimming is the fear that somehow my foobs will escape without me knowing it. I picture a 10 year old boy pointing at my chest and yelling, “eww….gross” and the whole pool turning and gawking at me. Yeah, I have a few (many) body issues myself.

    Please keep us updated about your return to the deep end of the pool. If you can do it, you might inspire some of us couch potatoes to dive back in the water again.

    Please let

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Sharon,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. It sounds like we both have some body issues, there….

      I had DIEP flap reconstruction, so everything is intact. Physically, that is. Mentally in the pool I feel a bit unhinged. I will keep everyone posted about how the exercise is going. I’m bent and determined to make this work.

  3. Scott Johnson had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth, I’d add chair yoga to list of low impact fitness activities. Having colon cancer I’m not missing any parts on the outside but have some interesting scars on the outside to be conscious of.
    Breast removal is way more serious but at one time as a kid a friend lived in an apartment over a topless club. Most of the apartments were rented to the performers with their enhanced breasts. Even as a 14 year-old boy I found the attractive women were the ones who wore their breasts with ease–if that makes sense.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Scott,

      Chair yoga sounds wonderful. Thank you for mentioning it.

      I’m sorry you have colon cancer. Any cancer is horrible. I’m not sure if breast removal is more serious than what you are going through; it’s just different.

      Regarding people with enhanced breasts, I guess it’s their choice, and I’m in no position to judge them. Those of us with a breast cancer diagnosis/history and those at high risk for breast cancer sometimes must have that mastectomy and reconstruction, the latter of which is so different from enhancing one’s breasts. Many of us in the breast cancer realm who had a mastectomy and reconstruction would’ve preferred the parts we were born with.

      Thank you for your input.

  4. karen sutherland had this to say about that:

    dear Beth,

    Good for you being determined to get back into the pool! I did not know you had foot surgery – and now the plantar fasciitis – ouch! I’ve had that twice and found some gel filled heel inserts that last time – and in less than 2 weeks the PF resolved, never to return. good thing, because I am really into walking – 1-2 miles 7 days a week and it’s made such a difference with my mind, my body and my soul. I also joined a free 12 week program called “livestrong at the “Y” for post chemo patients to help regain both physical and emotional strength and now that I am an alumna, I get a great perk – yoga along with individualized healing touch and reiki. what bliss! and I have become very proud of my new-found fitness. after having my lumpectomy, I bought all new bras, then proceeded to lose nearly 80 pounds. my only worry about body image is that my breasts are lots smaller and don’t fill up the (padded t-shirt) bras’ cups – so I sometimes am leery of having a big dent showing through my shirt! guess it’s time to buy new bras – but what fiasco that is. UGH.

    yes, Beth, do keep us posted on how the swimming and other exercise goes. Good Luck…

    …and much love,

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Karen,

      Thank you so much for your comment! Good for you for walking so seriously. I am so impressed that you walk every day — walking is such a great exercise. The Livestrong at the Y does you a world of good — I can tell. And good for you for losing the weight. Fantastic. I heard great things about reiki, but I don’t know much about it.

      I did swim for an hour, and it went smoothly and beautifully!! So grateful to be able to do this.

      I’m taking medication to reduce the plantar fasciitis inflammation, and I’m getting fitted for orthotics, which will help. I think walking will resume in my near future.

      Thanks, as always, for commenting. I always appreciate what you have to say.

  5. Care Across had this to say about that:

    Glad you escaped the meat market – awful….
    All gyms and swimming pool are strange places, nonetheless.

    Rest assured that next time you share a lane, the other person will be worried about how their swimsuit looks, if their hair will get as messy as last time despite the cap, if they swim in a funny way, if they swim in a straight line (of course not!)…

    Swimming, walking, running, exercising… all these activities are to be enjoyed. And they are best enjoyed by the person doing them 😀

    Keep us posted on how the Return was! You may motivate some of us out there…

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Care Across,

      I love your advice and insight. The person sharing a lane with me probably has his/her own insecurities, too.

      I savor exercise and, while it takes great effort to get out the door to the gym, when I’m swimming, I’m taken to another world — one of relaxation and peace.

      It turns out that I swam for an hour yesterday, and that’s when I realized how much my body craved exercise, particularly swimming. Interestingly, I didn’t give the deep end much thought, but glided over it with no problems.


Add Your Comment, Feedback or Opinion Here

Your email is safe here. It will not be published or shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>