We have remarkably resilient bodies. The parts of your body that are not cancerous are probably working just fine. When we strengthen those parts, they share their strength with the afflicted parts. A diligent program of exercise (whatever you are able to do), helps your immune system get stronger, and your immune system is your best internal cancer fighter. Exercise is not a cure, but it sure beats quitting!
Numerous scientific studies affirm the value of exercise for cancer patients (recent example). Exercise does wonders not only to your body, but to your mental attitude as well. Supported by a healthy diet, you might add precious months or years to your life – perhaps long enough for cutting-edge research to find a cure. Whether or not that happens, you will have enjoyed those precious days, months, and years much better than if you had quit. Exercise feels good!
As I lay recovering in the hospital bed, the doctors and nurses told me one of the best things I could do for my recovery was to walk. I took that to heart. I couldn't even eat solid food yet or pass gas through my newly shortened intestines, but I didn't wait for them to come and make me walk; I asked them to come and walk me! It was painful at first, and for the first couple of days they had to pull the IV rack alongside me, but I was determined to walk, walk, and walk some more. Soon I was pulling the IV rack myself as I walked. When the surgeons allowed them to remove my IV and drainage tubes, I surprised the nurses by walking unassisted up and down the aisles, even before I could blow the plastic ball in the breathing toy up to the normal level. By the end of the week, I was walking the entire floor four times in a row at a pretty fast clip. The amazed nurses cheered me on!
When I first got home, I could hardly stand up straight. I was told I couldn't lift anything, and needed lots of rest. But I could walk: and so I did. The first day, I walked up the sidewalk the distance of two houses, then I turned around and walked back. That was all I could do for the whole day. The next day, I walked up 3 houses. The next day 4, then 5, then 6. I made it a project to add another house each day. Pretty soon I was adding two at a time, then more. Gradually I could stand up straighter despite the scar, and my lungs improved. It took weeks, but I could finally blow the plastic ball up to the top of the tube. I was feeling much better!
There was hardly a day when I didn't walk. I kept records of my progress on a spreadsheet. By March 18, just two weeks after returning home from the hospital, I walked my first mile. Ten days later I walked 2 miles. The very next day, I made 3 miles! Two days later, 4 miles! It was working. I could feel my body getting stronger. I decided that I would walk 2 to 4 miles every day, and I have kept that commitment ever since. By the end of 2013, I had walked a total of 700 miles, the distance from Los Angeles to Denver! This year in 5 months I've done 370 miles already. At this pace, I may break 900 miles in 2014, and if I were to push it, a thousand-mile year is possible, just walking for about an hour a day.
My walking program was so successful, in fact, that less than 4 months out of the hospital, I went backpacking! I carried my own 45 lb pack 10 miles into the Grand Canyon and back out. The photo shows me jumping off "Skydiver Leap," about 55 ft high, into a deep pool. I had not attempted that jump in 11 years, and here I was, now a cancer survivor, well enough to do it at age 62. My surgeon's eyes widened as I showed him this; "That's insane!" he exclaimed, sharing the astonishment of a phenomenal recovery.
Just two months later, I backpacked again deep into the Sierras, hiking about 20 miles with some non-trivial elevation gain. I was able to keep up with young adults half my age. Before my surgery, I worried I would have to give up these strenuous activities. The benefits of daily exercise, along with my doctors' ongoing care, had given me a new lease on life.
Between these major outings, there were numerous day hikes, some strenuous. One nearby trail rises 2000' in 2.3 miles. I made it to the top and back, not too shy of my personal best, within 2 months of returning home. (In this part of the country, I do have to watch out for rattlesnakes. I've seen half a dozen on my walks since surgery.)
To keep my walks from getting monotonous, I mapped out several routes from my home. Using Google Earth, I measured routes that are 1 mile, 2 miles, 3, 4, 5, and 6. The picture shows one of my more challenging 4-mile routes. You can see the trail stretching off into the distance, all the way to the freeway far, far away at right. I get 700 ft of elevation gain as I go up and down from the hilltops by the powerlines down into the valleys and back up. Hills are the best exercise for walks. They give the lungs and muscles a workout.
Other routes take me up sidewalks in the neighborhood. One benefit is that I have met many neighbors I never knew before! A one-mile route takes me by all the homes in my housing tract, and I have enjoyed getting to know people. I carry dog biscuits in my pocket to make friends with their dogs. When Max and Bailey see me coming, they run to me so fast for their treats that they pull their owners running behind them on the leash! Nasty barkers are now my friends. The neighbors have been encouraging when I tell them the reason for my walks. They smile and cheer me on.
Other routes take me by a shopping mall. I can walk to a sandwich shop, buy lunch, and walk back in 2 or 3 miles. Sometimes I drive to nature trails. Variety helps keep it a fun project, not a boring routine.
These days, you can take the edge off exercise with a smartphone and headphones. I listen to music and the radio, and before I know it, my walk is over. With my water bottle strapped on my belt, a hat, walking poles and my headphones, with a few dog biscuits in my pocket and sometimes an apple or granola bar, I'm off. On most days my walk takes less than an hour.
I like to go when the sun is low to avoid that southern California sunburn. When it's warm, and I hike out on nature trails away from people, I prefer going shirtless. There's fewer sweaty T-shirts to wash, and it feels so good and free with the breeze on the skin. At first I was self-conscious about that 12" scar on my abdomen, but now I wear it like a badge of honor. It's my reminder of God's goodness to me to He has let me regain my health so well, so soon after being near death's door. You appreciate your body so much more when you don't take it for granted!
Before the surgery, I had lost a lot of muscle mass. My arms and chest were skinny and embarrassing. So with the principle of "strengthen what remains," as soon as I was able to lift things again, I added weight training to my exercise regimen. Every other day I do bicep curls, and alternate with dumbbell flys. This shot was taken 7 months ago, and I'm continuing to get bigger each month. That's another benefit of exercise in "thriving with cancer" -- if you can do it, it improves your sense of well-being, because you're not as embarrassed to look in the mirror as before. You feel like you're making progress, not wasting away. Most people have no idea what I'm dealing with unless I tell them. That's one weird thing about carcinoid cancer. The title of a new book about carcinoid patients is, "But you look so good!" Yes, but...
The Bible speaks metaphorically of God's "strong right arm" with which He comes to the aid of His people. Strength is honored in the Bible, not as the highest good, but as a good nonetheless. "Therefore strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees, and make level paths for your feet," Hebrews 12:12-13 says, "so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed." The Great Physician did His part in making you. Now do your part in strengthening what remains.
Can you tell I'm an advocate of exercise for cancer patients? I'm not alone. Like I said, there are numerous studies backing this up. It's one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Even so, I realize it's not a cure, and it's not for everyone. A friend in my cancer support group has been an avid bicyclist all her life, but now is in advanced stages of carcinoid cancer. Her bones are brittle and she is in constant pain. Exercise is not an option for her. Others are bedridden, dealing with severe side effects from chemotherapy or radiation. My heart goes out to them. There are a dozen people with cancer on my prayer list in various stages. Even though I encourage them to exercise, I know I don't walk in their shoes. I can only tell you my story that has worked for me up to this point. I realize that I'm in a kind of "Indian summer" before the storms of winter hit me, too. I've got time bombs in my liver that could become active any time.
But isn't that true for everyone? No man knows his time. We're all afflicted with an incurable disease--mortality--that is going to get us eventually. You could be hit by a bus before the cancer gets you. Why not make the most of each day? Your life is like a box; some boxes are bigger, some smaller. Your box may be small, but you can choose to fill up and fill out the box God put you in. By doing so, you may get more out of your life than someone in a big box who huddles in the corner. So don't just sit there and bemoan your fate. If you can squeeze your hand, exercise your forearm. If you can breathe, do breathing exercises. Do whatever your doctors don't forbid in the way of exercise. You might just surprise them!