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: body image and breast cancer, cancer aftermath, exercise and cancer, fitness and cancer