Running, Cancer & Lessons in Recovery

Cancer has brought me to many realizations and although I can stretch any perspective into the realm of running, they don’t always apply. However, the lessons I’ve learned about recovery are undeniable, as I face them every day. For better or for worse.

First off, ask my coach about my recovery process. He’ll probably tell you I suck at it. Now, that’s not to say I CAN’T recover, but rather that I don’t LET myself recover. Where I should be running 7:00 to 7:30 miles on my easy days, I’m usually pushing 6:00 to 6:30 miles…just because…just because I like to run, I like to feel that “high”, that struggle, that experience inherent to pushing oneself at a certain limit. I don’t like running to be boring, where I’m just passing distance and not even laboring in breath. Recovery and intensity of experience are oppositional forces.

Which means I’ve often run myself into injury. Or at the very least, compromised the intensity and value of my truly hard days of running.

Cancer, however, doesn’t play. There is no, “Eh, I don’t feel like taking it easy today” with cancer. There is, quite the contrary, the effort to actually make it hard. Cancer takes you down, whether through surgery or chemo. And I’m the better, more knowledgable, runner for the experience.

My first bout of forced recovery was after surgery just over a year ago. I don’t exaggerate when I say the effect on my body was equivalent to about 20 of my 2009 Chicago Marathon efforts…as if run back to back to back, without a change in pace. I was DONE. Just reaching across my hospital bed to grab a cup, or even just sitting up in bed, was an incredible effort in both pain avoidance and muscle engagement. But that recovery was unavoidable. I knew that was coming and I knew the trajectory of that recovery was only for the better. I could only get stronger from that point on. There was very little backsliding.

But then came Chemo, and the recovery mimicked the process necessary in running. It’s still hard to say to others, “I have cancer.”, because I don’t feel it. I FEEL chemotherapy and it seems more appropriate to tell others I’m fighting chemo….both through the process of strength and recovery, and I’ve learned more and more how important this is to my running as well, in part because they are intricately linked.

I have chemotherapy infusions every three weeks and where they were once debilitating in their side effects, I still fought against the destructive tendencies through aerobic and muscular strength building. Then the worst of the drugs was removed from my regimen and it was like the clouds were lifted. I was so much more physically able, or at least the unmotivating side effects were minimalized. I was, however, still taking chemotherapy pills on a 2 week “on”, 1 week “off” basis, which is where the importance of and inherent bodily processes of recovery became very, VERY apparent. The most noticeable of the side effects is Hand and Foot syndrome, which if I can try to succinctly explain, feels like taking course sandpaper to the bottom of your feet and then walking on sharp pebbles. It’s awful, and some days I was left barely able to walk through my house. And yet, in the morning, I could still fight through 4 or 5 miles of treadmill running before it got out of control…and then I had to stay off my feet to recover. And recover I did. Amazingly. Not necessarily of my own volition, but of my body’s. It just fixed itself so quickly, allowing me to run the very next day.

But there is an accumulation process with chemotherapy and where I could get away with running despite my complications, there was a point that the recovery was never strong enough and I really started to suffer. My fingers cracked and bled. My feet were covered in blisters and just walking through the house was excruciating. No amount of inherent recovery could push back against the destruction of chemotherapy. I was breaking down quickly.

That’s when my medical oncologist felt I had enough and adjusted my schedule, switching me to a 1 week “on” and 1 week “off” regimen, hoping to aid my body’s natural recovery process. And just like that, everything got better again. My hands and feet, although still problematic, felt better. My fingers stopped bleeding. The pain in my feet held off later into my runs and I was able to build more and more mileage. Where I was forced to take off 4 days at a time, I was now able to get away with just 2 or 3. I was encouraged and motivated to keep pushing, to build strength, and let the recovery process force it’s way into my plans.

This back and forth, push and pull, really brought me in tune with my body’s recovery process, it’s ability to regenerate against such destructive chemicals, in a way I had never really been forcedt o experience. I tried to follow its path. Without a pressing race (or ability to race) on the schedule, I began allowing myself days off when I could feel my muscles stressing too far. I cut miles short. I waited until I knew I was strong enough to run again.

And I was the better runner for it. I could run stronger, faster and longer on the days I COULD run, and I wasn’t worn down from continuously trying to fight against the chemotherapy. I was really just biding my time, whether that was for a change in diagnosis or surgery. Ultimately, I was learning more and more about my body and the value in recovering from the stresses of chemo and physical deterioration. I was learning when to push back and when to let go.

Last infusion my medical oncologist took a look at my hands again…and didn’t like what he saw. My palms were severely discolored and although they weren’t bleeding or in significant pain, he took me off my pills for the week, “giving my body a break”, yet again. I’m not going to lie…I was thrilled, though I didn’t show it to him. It’s a funny thing this, being in a position to fight off a life ending process of cell reproduction, and to be excited when you’re taken off the drugs that may be keeping you alive. But sometimes…as in running….you just need a break.

I stopped taking the pills, and just as I expected, the recovery followed immediately. The pain left my hands and feet…by the end of the day pretty much. The next morning I was ready to go, ready to run, unhindered by the destructive process of staying alive, which meant I could add my own measured stresses to my body, letting recovery do it’s thing in a different way…not just pushing back against chemo, but actually building the body stronger for the next battle. And the next two weeks…oh man…they were awesome. I let go. I ran and ran and ran, even doing my first WORKOUT…with racing flats! I put the over padded Hoka One One’s on the shelf and went back to running in trail shoes and racing flats, just trying to squeeze in enough muscle/aerobic strength as I possible could in this moment of reprieve.

I also didn’t let myself recover. Intentionally. And I’m sort of paying for it. I ran myself into problematic heel/foot pain, over stressing my systems with an increase in mileage that I knew was not advisable…but in my circumstance, sometimes good advice isn’t the best advice. So I kept running, because my time of strength building is limited and chemo will show it’s face again, forcing me into a state of recovery…which is exactly what is happening now.

I started taking my pills again Monday. And just as the body’s ability to recover is amazingly powerful and quick, so is chemo’s destruction. By the afternoon I was feeling the expected sensations in my hands and tips of my fingers. By the next afternoon I was feeling mildly nauseous. And on my runs I was, again, hitting the “wall of drugs” as my red blood cells are battered and destroyed by a big FU of medicine. Actually…that “FU” of medicine is literal. The acronym for my pills is called 5-FU. No joke.

And those pills said…hey…”F. U.” to my body.

So that’s where I am again, pushing back against the wall of drugs as I run to the end of the week..on a sore heel, which is the least of my problems really. At the end of this week, however, I’ll stop taking the pills for now, and although the sensitivity in my feet will be heightened, I’ll be able to recover once again and push back, building muscle fibers, recreating red blood cells, and engaging with the process of recovery yet again. I will get stronger. I will get faster. I will have been stressed, but recovering from the stress will only make me a better, fitter runner and person.

Then come August, I will experience that same destructive process of surgery and back to that trajectory of recovery.

Here’s my hope in all this. Through running, we break ourselves down only so much in order to build back up to a better place. We do this in a controlled manner and when we allow for sufficient recovery, which I’m learning to do through this experience, we get stronger and stronger very quickly. So maybe..just maybe…this repeated process of surgery, recovery, stressing, recovery, stressing, recovery, surgery, recovery is priming my body for something amazing to come. Maybe, just maybe, after surgery, (if I’m past cancer…and that’s a BIG if), my body will be able to handle the stresses of running even better than before. It will take the stresses of 6 x 1 mile and laugh. It will say, “That’s all you got? A little muscle pounding? Please…I’ve been FLOODED with poisons. You’re going to have to try harder than that.” And then it will recover. And it will be stronger. And it will fight back with more and more oxygen rich red blood cells.

And it will run faster than ever before….with a newfound sense of controlled recovery.

That’s my hope.

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2 responses to “Running, Cancer & Lessons in Recovery

  1. Your thoughts relate to everyone in some way or another. I’m sure glad you took this time to run. Explains the rather longer hiatus since the last blog. Isn’t it hard to figure out when to push through and when to step back. Perhaps we have to realize that stepping back isn’t failure, but wisdom. Hmmm.

    • Shannon, Laura has also mentioned that I haven’t blogged in a bit…so I felt I should get on it. But yeah, I’ve been busy running and working…so there is that. I’ll get up another post or two soon since I”m following this recovery advice for the next 2 days. :)

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