Contributed by Heather Schimke
I started CrossFit in the summer of 2016, and it quickly grew to be one of my favorite activities. I hadn’t worked out consistently before this, but I grew to like the sore after-workout feeling because it made me feel alive inside. I grew to love the camaraderie of the other members cheering and challenging you. It also reminded me that physical activity is equally important for our brain and soul as it is for our bodies.
Fast forward to December 2017, 18 months after I started CrossFit. I was diagnosed with stage IIIc colon cancer at the age of 41, making me part of a growing number of young people diagnosed with this disease. The cancer had spread into eight lymph nodes, but, thankfully, didn’t take up residence in my liver or other organs. In hindsight, it’s quite amazing that I did my personal best record for a deadlift (245 lbs.) one week before my diagnosis. I was fortunate to have surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and I had a nine-inch resection, with eight rounds of both oral chemo and infusions.
When I started going to CrossFit, my mental mindset was the following:
- Always keep moving — you can have breaks, but don’t stop.
- Count in threes or twos — everything is more tolerable when it’s broken down into small, achievable chunks.
- Live ONLY in this moment because it will end.
- Learn to be comfortable in discomfort.
- Employ grit and tenacity.
- The gift of having a village comes with immense healing power.
- It’s only a moment/day, NOT a lifetime.
The lessons I learned from CrossFit quickly became serendipitous when I was diagnosed with cancer because my whole approach to chemo was an exact replica of my mental mindset for CrossFit. Little did I know that I already had all the tools to handle chemo as I was already using them at the gym.
When things got tough during chemo I would tell myself, “Just focus on this one day. Tomorrow is always different. I am OK being uncomfortable. Dig deep, Heather; find strength. Ask for help; you are not alone. This is not forever — just today.”
The gym became a safe haven for me, and the support I received from gym members was unreal. Some of them grew to be co-pilots for my journey. I would always think to myself that I am so fortunate for my village because, without them, it would have seemed unbearable.
After my fifth infusion, I was unfortunately no longer able to do the high intensity activity level in a CrossFit class anymore. The trifecta of chemo, nausea, and neuropathy made it too difficult. I was gentle with myself when I knew I had to step away because I learned to be honest with myself about my limitations.
Even though I quit going to CrossFit, I made sure to always move each day — with the exception of the day of the infusion and three days afterward. This helped me feel alive, and some days that is exactly what I needed. It also helped with my neuropathy and the recovery became much quicker.
In hindsight, my personal theory is CrossFit was the reason my colon cancer didn’t become stage IV and move to other organs. I firmly believe because of my activity level, it kept the cancer from moving.
I am once again getting back into weights and the gym as COVID threw a big wrench in that, but my ability to withstand uncomfortable pain associated with hard workouts now has a whole new perspective. Who would have known that CrossFit and the gym would prepare me for cancer and chemo?
The wisdom and perspective I’ve gained from cancer are sometimes difficult to articulate and with zero equivocation. I am a better version of myself because of it. I am (almost) grateful for the experience, because I have evolved in a way that only happens from a deep place of struggle.
Remember, these are days, not lifetimes.
You can find your village on the Colorectal Cancer Alliance’s private peer-to-peer network, allytoally.org.
Heather Schimke resides in Fargo, North Dakota, with her 22-year-old son and bloodhound Tillie. She is currently cancer-free and is passionate about creating "recovery-friendly" workplaces to break down the stigma and biases of mental health and addiction. Follow her on Instagram at @hschimke76.
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