How I found my own path to wellness after cancer and learned to stop judging myself at the gym.
My oncologist said I’d be back to the gym six weeks after my final day of radiation. But my body had something else in mind.
Even after the last chemotherapy infusion is given and the radiation bell is rung, any warrior knows the experience is far from over. In my case, it took six months after my last day of treatment for anal cancer to step foot inside a gym.
It was a long road of small steps: limping to the kitchen for the first time, walking to the mailbox, strolling slowly around the block and then working my way up a hill.
Anal cancer treatments consisted of oral chemotherapy for 30 days with two transfusions and another 30 days of radiation to my pelvis. This helped rid me of my egg-shaped tumor—cancer-free for a year now—but it left me with side effects that still persist.
Long-term side effects from anal cancer depend on your diagnosis, treatment type and overall health. Having a team of doctors and physical therapists to consult for personalized advice post-treatments is key to creating a routine that fits your lifestyle and specific needs.
Both my physical therapist and acupuncturist said to help my mobility and muscle aches, I needed to work out my core and hip muscles, implement breathing exercises and do daily stretching.
Pre-cancer and pre-pandemic, my favorite way to work out was through group classes at my local gym. Weekly yoga and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) left me sweaty and feeling like I could take on the world.
Cancer treatments took a toll on my body both physically and emotionally. But I knew my new post-cancer life meant that I had to refocus on wellness—specifically getting back to the gym when I felt safe.
I remember the first time I worked out in a fitness class post-cancer.
It was a scary but exhilarating experience. Even with the newfound confidence from my small steps, exercise classes were on a whole other level. Everyone was fit and strong, and I felt like an outsider.
I wasn’t even 40 while everyone else in the class was over 60. Those women were in amazing shape. I was in awe and a little jealous. I could barely make it through the warmup.
The fitness instructor could tell I was struggling and, without calling me out, kept encouraging me and making eye contact while telling the class we were doing great. At one point, we were instructed to do leg raises. I couldn’t do it. I was in the back of the class, and I started to tear up.
I knew I had been through hell and back with cancer treatments; I knew it would be a long road to feeling better. But in that moment, against logic and reason, it felt like my inability to raise my leg a few inches off of the ground was a personal failure.
I made it through that first class, happy for not pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Everyone has to start somewhere. I knew I needed to just put my ego aside and focus on getting healthy—on my own terms.
I am happy to say that cancer treatments didn’t stop me from living a healthy and active lifestyle.
Now when I attend classes, I make sure I’m at the back of the class and close to the door, just in case I have to make a beeline to the bathroom. I listen to my body and don’t push myself, even if everyone around me is. I recognize when I need to rest instead, or when my digestive system has other plans.
I’m also careful about how much exercise I get. Too much and my body starts to rebel; too little and I get stiff and sore. Finding that balance is hard, but it’s something that I have to do if I want to stay healthy.
The Road to a New You
My road to recovery is not over. Some days, it feels like I’m not making any progress at all; every small accomplishment feels like a huge victory. But slowly and surely, I am regaining my strength and confidence.
And now, almost a year post-treatment, I am happy to say that cancer treatments didn’t stop me from living a healthy and active lifestyle.
This journey isn’t just about physical strength—it’s also about mental resilience. After everything my body went through, it was hard to let go of pride and accept my new reality. There were days when I struggled to see myself as anything other than slow, weak and broken.
But with time and quite a bit of self-reflection, there came acceptance—not just of my new body, but of the fact that this has made me stronger than before.
No matter where you are in your cancer journey, taking small steps on the road back to recovery will help you regain your sense of normalcy, even if “normal” looks different from before. Whatever movement you can create in your life is monumental for your physical health and your mental well-being.