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Women Are Turning to Exercise to Help Them Reclaim Their Bodies After Cancer

Photo: Athleta; Donnie Edwards, a member of Recovery on Water (ROW)

Any cancer survivor will tell you the same thing: The loss of control over what's happening to your body is devastating.  Physical changes, like losing your hair, appetite, and muscle strength, can do a number on anyone's self-esteem. And surgeries for breast cancer, in particular, can leave women in bodies they no longer recognize, with scars and without breasts or hair.

For many women, exercise is a way to take back control—to take ownership of their bodies again, to tell cancer they're calling the shots now, and frankly, that cancer can go ahead and suck it. #sorrynotsorry.

Debbie Cosenza, 62, experienced this firsthand when she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. "I felt like things were being done to me (chemo, radiation, a mastectomy, and several reconstructive surgeries), and I wasn't in control," she says. "It made me depressed and I had lots of anxiety—and meds didn't help." (Related: Getting Rid of My Breast Implants After a Double Mastectomy Finally Helped Me Reclaim My Body)

When a nurse practitioner in her oncologist's office suggested she try Zumba to help with some of her symptoms, including the mental fog associated with chemo, she hesitated at first. But despite her sense of embarrassment over beginning to lose her hair, she gave the group workout a shot—and was completely transformed.

"When I was moving, I literally started to cry because it was like I got my body back. I wasn't being injected or pulled. It was my choice," she says. "It was an amazing sense of empowerment that came over me. I also realized, no one cares that you're bald!"

Taking Back the Reins

This connection between regained control over your body through exercise and improved self-confidence is echoed again and again by cancer survivors and experts alike. "Some women see cancer as their bodies letting them down, which can make it very difficult for them to gain trust in their bodies again," says Karen Hock, P.T., a physical therapist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

This was exactly what Jenn Sutkowski, 41, went through after finding out she had breast cancer during her very first mammogram. (Learn about what six women impacted by breast cancer wish they'd known in their 20s.) "It was scary as hell to be diagnosed, and I lived in a weird unknown place wondering, What did I do? Did I cause this?" she describes. She was sent into an emotional tailspin, compounded by the fatigue from radiation. So she started an at-home yoga practice at her oncologist's suggestion. "My docs were adamant about stretching during radiation, to keep the muscles limber, so yoga really made sense."

But Sutkowski didn't anticipate how empowering it would be. "Knowing there was something I could do for myself was incredibly helpful," she says. "I felt like, 'I can get through this. I'm strong, I'm able, I can move. This is a beautiful body and I am treating it well."

Today, about a year and a half out from finishing radiation, Sutkowski has turned to at-home Daily Burn videos, which she says has helped with the PTSD she deals with as a result of her cancer. "Exercise was transformative," she says.

Power In Numbers

Not only was Consenza not judged when she walked into that first Zumba class, but she was quickly blown away by the sense of community created by the simple act of moving in unison with other women. (In fact, she was so inspired that she decided to become a Zumba instructor herself and took on a community relations role for at-home personal training company GYMGUYZ.)

Photo: Athleta; the members of ROW lined up on the dock of their boathouse on the Chicago River at the end of their row. Executive director and coach Jenn Junk is in black.

That sense of group community is crucial for many women in the recovery process. Take, for instance, Recovery on Water (ROW), a sisterhood of breast cancer patients and survivors who use the power of exercise to move through recovery together through rowing (read more about ROW here). In addition to the supportive community of women, ROW captured the attention of athletic clothing brand Athleta, who is making a donation to support the women of ROW during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And of course, other women have found power in numbers through the countless walks and races that happen around the country every year to raise money for cancer. (This cancer survivor ran a half marathon dressed as Cinderella for an empowering reason.)

It was this group camaraderie that inspired Lauren Chiarello, 33, to take on the challenge of running her first half marathon after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 23. Moved by the gesture of her friends who signed up for a marathon to fundraise for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Chiarello decided to train for a race herself as a way to "build community and connect with others who were on a mission to make the world a better place."

That first half marathon turned into six more (plus two full marathons), and she's raised over $75,000 for cancer charities. She says that had she not beat cancer (twice), she never would have become a group fitness instructor for barre, Pilates, and TRX, or started her business Chi Chi Life—which melds her passions for fitness, fundraising event planning, and cancer advocacy.

Photo: Jason Roman; two-time cancer survivor and barre, Pilates, and TRX instructor, Lauren Chiarello

The Science of Survivorship

When meds couldn't help with Consenza's depression, anxiety, mental fog, or neuropathy, exercise did the trick. It might sound surprising, but there's real science behind stories like these about the power of exercise to help overcome the often-crippling symptoms associated with cancer treatment. "Exercise minimizes some side effects of treatment, like fatigue and depression," says Deborah Axelrod, M.D., a surgical oncologist from NYU Langone's Perlmutter Cancer Center.

Physical activity is also tied to a lower risk of recurrence, especially for certain cancers, including breast, colorectal, and endometrial cancer, Dr. Axelrod says. Because of the relationship between obesity and high estrogen levels, women who have had estrogen-sensitive post-menopausal breast cancers (most breast cancers are estrogen sensitive), are particularly at risk: "Women who are physically inactive have a higher risk of breast cancer recurrence," she says.

Raising the Fitness Bar

For some women who have defined themselves as athletes all their lives, being diagnosed with cancer can have a separate set of physical and psychological challenges.

Beth Dreher, 38, played sports all her life, including soccer at the college and semi-pro levels. After that, she got serious about running and completed her first marathon at 25. Two months later, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

For her, the diagnosis—and subsequent chemo and hysterectomy that decimated her abdominal strength—took away an essential part of her identity as an athlete. "Exercise had literally been a daily habit for me and cancer took it away," she says. "My muscles were shrinking before my eyes." Worse, Dreher didn't realize how much she relied on exercise as a stress reliever until she couldn’t do it anymore. "Being without exercise during the most difficult time in my life was like a double whammy," she says.

That's why a year and a half into her recovery, she decided to train for the New York Marathon, the ultimate proof that she could return to her normal, active self. "Running helped me reclaim my body as my own," she says.

For other women, a cancer diagnosis can provide the motivation to set out on a physical journey that exceeds any fitness goal they imagined setting for themselves before their illness.

Alli DeFrancesco Miller, 29, after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma during her senior year of college, decided to attempt a feat improbable even for someone who hadn't just completed chemo, a bone marrow transplant, and radiation: Swimming the English Channel.

After two years of intensive training, swimming upwards of 60 miles each week beginning at 5 a.m., Miller successfully swam the 21 freezing miles in just over 11 hours, and (because of her dual Italian and American citizenship), became the first Italian woman to do so.

"I saw my recovery as a second chance at life," Miller says. "Swimming the Channel was the ultimate closure of my battle with cancer and the start of something incredible."

And if swimming the English Channel, running marathons, and making inspiring career changes is just the start? Well, we have no doubt incredible things indeed lie ahead for these ladies.

Photo: Meg Haywood-Sullivan; Alli DeFrancesco Miller swam the English Channel after beating cancer.

 

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