Breast cancer blog: Goodbye chlorine as my lumpectomy forces drastic change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 May, 2013, 7:55am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 May, 2013, 8:05am

The body is stubborn and still gets up like clockwork at 6:30am to swim. Not today and not this season, however. Swimming, my passion and a love, is out and a search for a replacement sport is in.

As I’ve learned from my many Google searches and my doctors, surgery and radiation and chemo don’t mix well with chlorine, especially the public pools in Hong Kong.

“A high risk of infection, you don’t want to make things worse” they say. But I continue to Google all of the alternatives to public pool swimming: how about rivers, lakes, ponds? What if I went to a five star hotel or bought my own infinity pool? The doctors are stern and shake their heads.

I finally give up. The aunt reminds me that I have more important things to think about like treatment, getting better and there is one word that no one mentions, not even me: survival. Because cancer isn’t like a broken leg, even after the lump has been removed, the treatment is all about upping the chances that the rogue cells won’t return.

The early bird swim workouts have been replaced by physical therapy and the attempt to get the left arm to gain mobility post lumpectomy. I’ve been obediently doing the exercises in my new little breast cancer book that the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation gave me. Good news, it’s getting there.

And I’ve been looking for the new sweetheart sport while greatly missing the old one. My wide-ranging Google searches have included “leg-centric sports”, “best sports for breast cancer patients” and “best sports for cancer”. There’s speed skating, badminton, soccer (although high impact), and there’s good old walking although the sticky weather is yet another hurdle.

Saying farewell to the swimming I knew is like nursing a bad break-up. The breast surgeon – who also diagnosed me with a mildly fatty liver - didn’t seem to believe me when I told her I swam the Hudson River and the 28.5 mile Manhattan Island Marathon. As recently as a couple months ago I could click off sixty 100 meters at 1:45 intervals. Argh, why can’t I close this chapter?

I can be immensely stubborn.

In the first couple of weeks since the surgery I got down to the clubhouse pool, or puddle, and created my own little workout - a much watered down rendition of what I used to swim. I felt like a fish out of water. I sat at the edge of the pool and kicked the water at high speed, watching senior citizens swim slowly past me. But kicking water alone without the camaraderie of my team is no fun, and I’m quickly getting bored of this Mickey Mouse routine.

I’m somewhat comforted by the soothing words of my new peer counsellor from a Support Connection, a group that supports women with ovarian and breast cancer, based in New York.

“Allow yourself to grieve when you need to and then try to find things that bring you joy and comfort as you can. I know swimming is not an option right now, but perhaps other forms of exercise to help you feel stronger and more confident with all the other benefits you usually get from your exercise routine,” she wrote. "Perhaps you would like to look into wellness activities, yoga, dance, painting for example.”

Rather than throwing the towel in as I would have before and comparing myself to my fellow mat mates, I’ve come to accept that my body has its boundaries

So I’ve joined a yoga studio for a month, deciding to splurge a bit. I figure I deserve a break from the stifling humidity of summer and perhaps a brief escape from this stressful disease, and this morning for the first time I joined in on the most basic of classes “Hatha 1” or Yoga 101. I’d done yoga before in college and as recently as last fall and did well. “You’re strong and pick up things easily,” an instructor told me. This time I took things very slowly, extremely unsure of my own body.

Child’s pose, no problem. Warrior two, no problem, But downward racing dog was impossible since the left arm is still tense and sore from the lumpectomy and the lymph node biopsy. Rather than throwing the towel in as I would have before and comparing myself to my fellow mat mates, I’ve come to accept that my body has its boundaries. It is an acceptance that there are things in life one can’t change. So I did the modified poses, still worked up a sweat, headed to the locker room for a warm shower, and smiled. Not bad, I thought. I’d be back.

Video: Me taking part in the Boston Light 2010