Many of us, at one time or another, will have something happen that pulls the rug out from under us. Throughout my entire life, I have pretty much cruised right along. But this past November, fresh into my 40th year on this planet, I--a happy, healthy mom, wife, and personal trainer--was diagnosed with DCIS, a non-invasive breast cancer.
Out of nowhere, I was confronted with the biggest challenge physically, spiritually, and emotionally that I have ever
had to face.
I know my situation pales in comparison to many peoples’ struggles. But this trial changed me profoundly, and now that I am on the other side of my treatment, it has allowed me to be a confidant and source of support to other friends who are dealing with their own trying times.
In October of 2017, I went in for my yearly OBGYN checkup. As I left the office my doctor poked his head out into the hallway and said, “Hey Emily, I just noticed you recently turned 40. Make your mammogram appointment!” I cheerfully responded that I would. I was a responsible adult keeping on top of my health- no problem! I now look back at that moment as my saving grace, as the following week, I went in for my first mammogram. A week after that, I received a call from the hospital that they saw a suspicious spot and I needed to come in for a second look. As I waited in a pink robe at my follow-up appointment, I knew something wasn’t right when they called me back to check my lymph nodes through an ultrasound. Then, I was escorted to meet a radiologist. Finally, a nurse navigator calmly asked me if I had anyone waiting for me.
(No, I didn’t have anyone waiting for me! I was a healthy, strong independent woman, after all!)
In that moment, I knew that life was about to change.
My lymph nodes were clear, but the radiologist was 90% certain that what he saw on my mammogram was DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ), a pre-cancerous clump of cells in my left breast. But not to worry, they said: I would soon be okay after a lumpectomy with radiation, or, possibly, a double mastectomy. The nurse called my husband to break the news to him, since he had just left for a 3-month tour as a singer, and I couldn’t bring myself to get the words out. Overwhelmed doesn't begin to describe how I felt as I simply tried to process what I had been told. For the next three weeks, my days were filled with surges of cortisol, and my nights were restful as I crashed from emotional exhaustion.
Doctors’ appointments, shuffling my children around to friends and family, crying, not eating, repeat. And, CRAP, I still had to tell my kids. I felt like I was trying to knit a sweater on a roller coaster. With time, relief started to peek through in small ways. When I told my kids, their reaction was, “Does this mean we get to have more play dates?” (Cue a sign of relief!). It wasn’t all playdates and roses, of course. Take the time my son threw a bottle of green juice across the table at me two days after my surgery. If I was having a hard time processing all of this, I couldn’t imagine what was going through their 5- and 8-year-old minds! We were all just trying to get by each day. I knew it would get better, but in that time and under that stress, I had never felt more alone, depressed, and anxious. I had also never leaned on God, my family, and my friends this
much in my life.
I set a surgery date with two incredible surgeons for just three weeks after my initial diagnosis. I would undergo a nipple-sparing double mastectomy, and at a later date, reconstruction. Some would see it as an aggressive approach, and others would say it was “exactly what they would do.” I see it as my personal choice and I do not regret it for one second. The stress, to me, of having something inside my body that could eventually harm me was too powerful.
During this waiting period, I tried to control a lot of things. Like a lot of people, I fall somewhere in the middle of putting my faith in the medical community and, on the flip side, living in a holistic way as much as possible. At that time, I purged my house of plastics and spent thousands of dollars on oils, tonics, and a reverse osmosis drinking water system, trying to eliminate those things that I thought—for even a brief moment—could have contributed to my cancer. Although the changes to our routine have lasted, I had to let go of the one thing that was poisoning everything: the guilt I felt that I somehow had brought this upon myself. Instead, I focused on what I could control: moving my body, every day, in at least a small way.
While I was recovering from surgery, I realized the things I missed the most involved physical movement and touch. I missed running, boxing, lifting weights, yoga classes with my friends, and most importantly, holding my children close to my chest.
My first week after my surgery was rough: a LOT of sitting around and visiting with the family and friends who came to keep me company. But it was still a lot of sitting: I couldn't even walk around the block. I dropped my meditation routine. I binge-watched shows with my husband and loving cousin who came in from New York to take care of me. I asked my doctors what I could physically do, and it wasn’t much.
But then I started to walk.
At first, just a walk around the block. Those 10 minutes turned my mood completely around. I built up to hourly strolls up and down the hills in my neighborhood. I welcomed with open arms the cold December and January weather that formerly sent me into a chill. I was living, and I was moving, and I was grateful. When my doctors cleared me to start strength training again, I was ecstatic. I was a personal trainer after all! But I learned quickly that I was in a new, unfamiliar situation. I didn’t know exactly how to move or what was safe, or where to begin. And despite being a trainer, I stumbled through a series of trials (and many errors!) as I tried to navigate blindly though this black box that I never knew existed: the void of people, programs, and experts dedicated to helping people just like myself understand how to incorporate exercise into their life during or after a cancer diagnosis.
I was fortunate: I was a personal trainer, I was fit when I was diagnosed, and my prognosis was excellent. But I realized very quickly that I am a rarity. Not everyone has the knowledge or the interest or the energy to understand how to blend exercise with this most unwelcome new part of life: cancer. When it came time to renew my fitness certification (as it does every two years), I came across a wonderful program that instantly caught my eye: a certificate program designed to train cancer exercise specialists. I dove in—head first--and put my heart and soul into studying the information I had so recently longed to know and understand for myself. I talked with trainers, my doctors, and my surgeons, and I began to envision a new avenue in my training business.
And this decision has changed my path forever.
When I was first diagnosed, a friend said something to me that I resented in the moment. She said, “I know you will be okay, but I am just so sad that this is your path.” I rejected the notion that cancer was my path. I refused to accept that cancer was going to be a part of my story. But, she was exactly right. This WAS and IS my path. I am so very fortunate that my path includes. many happy and healthy years ahead (God willing). But one way or another, this path is my life, And I’m taking away incredible lessons from the experience.
So, what did I learn in my experience?
I learned that exercise and movement have the power to make us feel alive. Exercise has so many benefits when it comes to preventing disease, living a healthy lifestyle, and recovering from illness or surgery. But the magical, and arguably most important, quality is in the power and strength exercise provides us. For that one hour each day while I was recovering, movement was my saving grace. Regardless of the chaos that surrounded my life, I felt more clear minded, strong and invigorated when I walked.
In some ways, this is because it was an aspect of my life that I could control. I couldn’t control how long it was going to take to recover. I couldn’t control how great or terrible I would feel the next day. But I could make the decision to get up and get outside and move every day. I made it my priority. It helped me bounce back. It gave me life again, and it always turned my mood around. Most people with a healthy exercise routine will tell you the number one reason they exercise is because of the way it makes them feel.
To those struggling with a cancer diagnosis or any hardship, this is intensified. Exercise provides moments of strength, power, and clarity that are in short supply when dealing with illness and stress. Especially in moments of grief and strife, living in the power of movement is a gift. I think everyone, particularly individuals going through cancer, deserves to know that they have the power to live in the movement of their
To help others find the resources and the tools they need to incorporate movement and exercise into their lives is path that I am committing to both emotionally and intentionally through my business. The purpose of my new venture is to help men and women move better and move properly during treatment or after surgery. The name I chose for my business, chosen just months before my diagnosis, Live In The Movement, has taken on a whole new meaning to me, and I am honored that clients trust me to help them find ways to live in the movement, even during the most trying times of their lives.