How Working Out Changed After My Double Mastectomy
Bachelor alum Lesley Murphy details how her fitness has changed since she underwent a preventative double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
You may remember her as a contestant on Sean Lowe's season of The Bachelor. But Lesley Murphy, 29, a successful travel blogger and fitness devotee, has been making headlines for her decision to have a double mastectomy after testing positive for the BRCA2 gene. Here, Murphy details how the experience has affected her daily life, what's different about working out with breast implants, and how sports bra shopping has changed now.
I've always been an active girl. As soon as I hit fifth grade, I started tennis, basketball, and track. I even remember going to the gym with my parents as a teen. So getting up and moving is something that's been ingrained in me. It almost feels like my schedule is incomplete if I don't sweat at least once a day. It doesn't have to be anything crazy-a long walk outside, or even dancing around the living room will do-but the stress relief and mental clarity I get after exercise is something I crave.
So when I decided to have a prophylactic double mastectomy, I was nervous. Okay, concerns about being active weren't the only reason. After all, I was 29 years old and about to chop my boobs off. I asked myself, "Would I miss them? Would I like my implants? What if they didn't feel like mine?"
But I knew this was something I had to do. My mom battled breast cancer three years ago, and with that close family history, my sisters and I got tested for the BRCA2 gene in February. My older sister tested positive; my younger sister was negative. As the middle child, I-once again-was the tiebreaker. And as fate-or rather, genetics-would have it, my results were positive. This meant I had a 45 percent chance of developing breast cancer at some point in my life, according to the National Cancer Institute.
That's not a risk I was willing to take, and having a double mastectomy meant my risk would drop to less than 10 percent. So I immediately set up appointments with geneticists at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. It's the same hospital where my mom received treatment for breast cancer (which she beat, BTW). And since it's in my home state of Arkansas, it meant that I could recover at home with my family, where I could be with people who understood what I was going through.
I had my first surgery scheduled for April 11. I opted to get breast implants, too, which meant two surgeries in total. Doctors told me it would take a minimum of three months to have each procedure and recover, and my workouts would be limited, to say the least.
Which brings me back to why I was freaking out. Like I said, I've always been active. And as a travel blogger, I make a living exploring as many places as I can, particularly in the outdoors. I often do that through hiking, running, and swimming, among other things. To put all of that on the back burner was terrifying. Plus, I had just been researching different countries to get my yoga teacher certification in. Now, not only did I have to wait, but I also would potentially lose all the progress I had made.
I was able to work out until the day before my surgery and let me tell you, I took full advantage. I squeezed in as much as I could-running, yoga, spinning-whatever would work with my schedule. It almost felt like I was chasing after something. Looking back, I think it was two things: I was preparing my body as much as I could for the trauma it was about to endure, and I was keeping my mind off of my upcoming procedure.
After that first surgery, I felt like my chest had been ripped apart by the bears that I thought I'd encounter this year in the Canadian wilderness. I could barely lift my arms to put dry shampoo in my hair, so working out didn't even crossed my mind. Plus, my doctor told me that I couldn't exercise for at least a month. But after a few weeks, I started to feel the itch. I zeroed in on the date that marked exactly a month post-surgery, willing it to arrive sooner. When it didn't...I cheated. (Shhh.) I was three days shy of a month and couldn't take it anymore, so I went to the gym and did a few crunches and lunges. It wasn't high intensity, but damn it felt good. And as soon as the official one-month mark hit, I went to spin class. There wasn't any choreography on the bike, nor were there weights to lift or push-ups to do-it was very focused on lower body, which was great for my still-recovering chest-but it felt ~amazing~.
Two weeks after my surgery, I was back in the doctor's office, this time to inject saline into my expanders, which did exactly what they sound like: expand my chest in preparation for the implants. They also helped me get used to my new cup size. I talked to very active women-CrossFit instructors, marathon runners, etc.-who opted to have implants after a double mastectomy, and most of them decided to get the same size they had before, or even go smaller. But I wanted to go bigger. I've always been a small B cup, and with a curvier lower body, I wanted to even it out a bit. Since I never would have gotten a boob job on my own, I saw this as an opportunity. So I went up to a 34C.
To get to that size, 90 CCs of saline was injected into my implants every Tuesday for four weeks. I was able to work out, but it was difficult-those expanders were rock-hard and extremely heavy, and there was no squishing them around to fit into a sports bra. I couldn't really run-the bouncing was too much and the expanders made me feel weighted down-so I turned to barre classes and low-impact strength training much more frequently.
On July 3, I had my second surgery. I won't lie-I almost didn't want to have it. I didn't want to go back to square one again. I had healed so much in those three months and was feeling like myself, so the thought of starting over was awful. Thankfully, I didn't have to wait as long to get back into my workout groove. The doctor told me I had to wait two weeks, but being the, err, stubborn woman that I can often be, I hit the gym after one week. I did some light strength training with weights, but after about 15 minutes I realized it was too painful and not worth it. So I left, waited another week, then went back again. That week made a huge difference-and reminded me that I should always listen to my doctor. I signed up for a SoulCycle class that day and, once again, felt amazing. I even remember noticing how good my chest felt because my implants were so much lighter than those heavy, stiff expanders.
Now, I'm about 90 percent back to normal and working out four to five times a week. I can't swim or soak in water yet (a real struggle, since I love baths), and I still have a ways to go before I'm back at the fitness level I was at before all of this. But I'm back to doing most of the workouts I love, including yoga. I may not be able to do all the arm variations I used to, and Chaturanga feels really unnatural right now, but my instructor gives me different modifications to try. Honestly, I'm just happy to be back on the mat.
Sports bra shopping has been interesting, too. Actually, all clothes shopping. My old sports bras don't fit at all-I used to be able to wear high-neck tops and shirts with built-in bras. Not anymore. It's figuring out a whole new way of dressing. For sports bras, specifically, I never really needed support before, but now I totally understand what women mean when they say they need to double up on sports bras. If you don't have enough support, it's painful. And after everything I've gone through the last few months, I'm not here for unnecessary pain.
I've also had to figure out what kind of sports bras work best for me. I don't love racerbacks, because I don't want to take it off over my head and stretch my chest even more. And I prefer ones that close in the front over the back-it's easy access on and off, and they tend to feel more comfortable and supportive.
Still, I didn't realize any of these things without trial and error. Like, the time I was running through New York City to get to a yoga class and, all of a sudden, the zipper popped open and my boobs went flying out. (I wish I were kidding.) Or the time-actually, many times-I had a nip slip without realizing it. I don't have nerve endings in my breasts anymore, so I can't feel a slight breeze to let me know I might be out in the open. So I'm glad I have friends who aren't afraid to tell me to put the girls away with an understanding laugh.
So, yes, a lot of things have changed for me when it comes to fitness, but a lot of things have stayed the same. It's been a process, but I don't regret any of it. If a double mastectomy is what saves me from a future of fighting breast cancer, I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.