In the process of battling and surviving breast cancer, Patricia Prince found a new love: the love of running. In the guest post below, she describes how running helped her get back to health and what running means to her to this very day.
I am a breast cancer survivor, but I would much rather be called a runner. I started running to regain my health after the horrible ordeal of cancer treatments. I had two separate mastectomy surgeries, two full rounds of chemotherapy, and three months worth of daily radiation therapy. These left me weak, exhausted and depressed.
Cancer Treatments are Nasty
I was so sick from my first rounds of chemotherapy treatments that I would spend days afterwards just rocking back and forth. I would be huddled on the edge of the bed, feet ice cold, hunched over and gripping my stomach. I couldn’t get warm, no matter how many socks or layers I put on. Nor could I get rid of the unrelenting nausea. It was awful.
I also threw a nasty blood clot from chemo that saw me having to do daily anticoagulant injections for 6 months. Those nasty injections stung like a bee. I had to use all my mental willpower just to poke that needle into my stomach every single morning. I would close my eyes, take a deep breath and see shooting stars after pushing the plunger of the syringe. It was akin to torture, in my mind.
I Never Wanted to Experience That Again
I was determined to get healthy again. I wanted to make my immune system strong. Cancer would not beat me. My experience with this wretched disease gave me strength, tenacity and the determination to get my life on a healthier path.
I Believe in the 7 Pillars of Health
When Oko-Logic asked me to tell my story, I was thrilled. I subscribe to the 7 Pillars of Health. Joanna has been on a similar journey with her colon cancer. She has come to the same conclusions that I have. The path to good health is through healthy and clean living. It involves developing healthy habits for body and mind. The 7 Pillars of Health sums it up very nicely, I think.
My Journey Back to Health Started with Walking
My first step on my journey was to walk everywhere I could. I started walking during my chemotherapy. Of course, I felt weak and sick for days after treatments, but there were days I felt stronger. So, on those days, my husband and I would walk.
At first it was difficult and left me breathless. I felt so weak from my treatments. But the more we went and the further we walked, the stronger I got. And towards the end of treatments, I wasn’t as sick from my chemotherapy drugs either. Being active helped ease some of my cancer treatment side effects.
Walking regularly helped me in so many ways
When I started daily radiation treatments, I walked to my appointments. It was a mile and a half from my work to the hospital. I made that trek back and forth, a total of 3 miles every day for three months. It became routine. I didn’t even think about it. It saved me money on parking too.
And I watched a family of geese grow up in the pond along my route. I would walk by the parents and goslings every day. I watched the babies get bigger. They lost their fluffy down and grew real feathers. It was something I would have missed; had I drove to my appointments instead.
Radiation treatments were the easiest part of my cancer therapy. I attribute my lack of these side effects to being so active, staying hydrated and eating well.
But I outgrew walking
Walking wasn’t really enough anymore. I was getting stronger. My oncologist said I needed to do at least 20 minutes of cardio exercise everyday. Walking was no longer getting my heart rate up enough to count as cardio exercise. I needed to up my game.
I set out to learn to run
Then I read about a learn to run program after I had signed up for the Run for the Cure cancer fundraising event. I was just planning to walk the 5 kilometers of the event. But could I run it? That could be the cardio workout that my oncologist wanted, I thought.
I had serious doubts that I could run 5 kilometers. But, with my husband’s encouragement, I signed up to learn to run.
My doubts sored after that first running lesson. I can’t adequately describe how ridiculous I felt. My strides were so awkward. My lungs burned and my heart was pounding almost out of my chest. We were only running one-minute intervals. I felt silly. I couldn’t do this, could I?
But I was determined to run 5 km
Cancer has made me more determined and tenacious. Making it through to ringing the bell at the end of treatments has shown me that I can survive. My mindset has shifted. Pain and discomfort are only temporary. I just had to buckle down, set my mind on it and make it through to the other side. Running was like this too. I just had to make up my mind that I could. As hard as it was, I put doubt aside and did each and every run my instructor told me to do. I pushed past the burning lungs, pounding heart and tired legs.
I ran that 5KM in the Run for the Cure
Crossing that finish line in the run for the cure was emotional. I did something that I didn’t think I could do. I ran 5 kilometers. Amazing.
To prove to myself that it wasn’t fluke, I ran another 5 km and another and another. I loved the feeling of controlling my body again, overcoming hardship and accomplishing what I thought was impossible. So, I ran 10 kilometers. Then I started running half marathons.
I discovered something amazing through running
I discovered that my body was capable of adapting. It was adjusting to what I was challenging it to do. I ran further, my body got stronger. The more I ran, the less pain I felt. This was amazing to me. I needed to learn more about this phenomenon.
Science knows what I discovered for myself
I dove into the science of running. I now know that athletes and trainers already understand this. But I never consider myself an athlete, so had never really experienced this myself before. The concept of how very adaptable our bodies truly are was new to me then. It fascinated me.
Through reading science and medical journals, I learned some truly amazing things.
- Running helps ease pain
Scientists have shown that even for non-athletes, regular aerobic exercise, like running, can decrease our perception of pain. Exercises that get our heart pumping increase our ability to tolerate pain.
Running also releases our bodies own natural pain-killer chemicals, like endorphins. It is referred to as the “runner’s high”. These neurochemicals also make us happy.
- Running can improve our memory
Chemo brain is something many cancer patients and survivors experience. It can last several years after chemotherapy for some people. It causes a mental fog, difficulty focusing, confusion, memory loss, learning disabilities and slower brain processing.
Science has recently discovered that running produces more of a compound called cathepsin B that speeds up brain cell growth and improves memory. So, running can help cancer survivors lessen the effects of chemo brain by improving our brain function.
- Running helps prevent and treat some diseases
Numerous studies have shown that running prevents chronic disease and can aid in treatments. Muscle wasting and osteoporosis as we age can be slowed or prevented with running. Diabetes and liver disease can be managed effectively with the addition of aerobic exercise. Exercise can help patients with multiple sclerosis. High blood pressure and heart disease can be prevented or lessened with carefully planned exercise. And some brain disorders, like Alzheimer’s Disease, can be slowed with exercise.
- Running has anti-inflammatory effects
A recent study suggests that running can help us reduce inflammation in our body. It works by influencing the immune system and suppressing certain types of immune responses. However, heavy training to the point of exhaustion can cause too big of a suppression and leave us open to illnesses, such as cold and flu. So, don’t over do it. A little, and building slowly, goes a long way.
- Running suppresses tumor growth
Regular aerobic exercise decreases the risk for cancer. A study in 2016, among others, show that running boosts epinephrine, immune compounds and natural killer cells in our bodies that can help us fight cancer. It can help prevent the spread of cancer cells, can slow the growth of tumors and can prevent cancer recurrence.
- Running reduces depression and anxiety
And finally, numerous studies have shown the positive effects that running can have on our mental health. Both anxiety and depression can be reduced, and sometimes resolved, in patients that routinely exercise, especially run. Running helps us deal with stress better. I certainly feel much calmer emotionally after a run on those particularly stressful days.
Running did all this for me and more
I noticed an improvement in my health from running. After a run, I can think more clearly. I don’t get colds and flus as much anymore. After 6 years, I am still cancer free. I am happier. And life is easier. I lost 90 pounds. In regaining my strength, I am no longer limited in my physical abilities. I can do more, see more and experience more. I have hiked mountains and swam in the ocean. At age 52, I am stronger and more capable than I have ever been.
And then I ran a marathon
In 2019, to celebrate my 5th year of cancer survivorship, I set out to run a marathon. I trained for 20 weeks with some run buddies I met. The training was challenging, tremendous fun and hilarious at times. We ran the Twin Cities Metronics Marathon on October 6, 2019. It was a total of 26.2 miles, a distance I had never run before. To say it was hard is a bit of an understatement. But, I did it. I crossed that finish line. It was a tremendous accomplishment.
My determination to fight took me from an obese, sickly cancer patient to a strong athletic marathoner.
Take that cancer! I win!
Patricia Prince has a science degree and has worked in the medical research field for over 10 years. She is passionate about running and healthy living. She strives to help other cancer survivors get their lives back through healthy habits. She believes the path to good health is through eating well and being active. When she is not blogging or running, she cuddles with her 4 cats and reads.
Check out her amazing blog at https://pinkribbonrunner.com