Around this time last year, I was scouring the internet for answers.
I wanted to know how and when a woman could get back to lifting weights after a bilateral mastectomy.
Because this was going to be me very soon.
I was in darn good shape for a fifty-year-old woman – eight unassisted pull ups and plenty more pushups.
A passionate lifter for close to 20 years, I knew I had to have this preventative surgery, but I wondered how it would affect doing what I loved.
Lifting weights isn’t something I do just for looks or even for health… Lifting weights is my inner peace, my stress relief, my escape – my nirvana.
After a bit of searching, I found a woman in her forties who had undergone a mastectomy and was also an avid lifter. I hungrily read all her articles – she was walking a mile in week three, didn’t have any problems, and got back to lifting in week six. Wow!
I figured that if she could do that, why not me?
The Dark Days
Fast forward to a month after my five-hour surgery:
Stiff silicone shells are installed in each breast (called tissue expanders). The expanders are filled with saline each week to make room for implants in a couple of months.
My neck is achy from lying propped on my back all night and my chest feels tight and stretched, swollen from the injections the day before.
The long drains coming out of my armpits have been removed, but I can still barely dress myself due to limited upper-body mobility. Each time the expanders are filled, all the mobility gains I’d made in physical therapy seem to evaporate. My stamina is next to nothing, my digestion is jacked, and I still can’t even open a window.
Why wasn’t I doing as well as that woman I’d found on the internet?
I couldn’t even fathom lifting anything heavy for a long ass time. She was walking a mile in week three and I could only walk a couple of blocks without feeling nauseous and dizzy. When was I going to turn the corner and start feeling normal again?
They Call Them Steps For A Reason
These kind of thoughts went through my head for a few weeks before I realized that I wasn’t that woman I’d found on the internet.
I was me.
I had a unique body, a different doctor, and a completely different experience. I’d have to reach milestones on my own timetable, not someone else’s.
And I need to love and accept where I was on this journey.
In time, I was able to walk the one-mile route through the neighborhood. Then one day I rejoiced because I could take the route without stopping to rest. Later I found myself walking faster.
And then one day, I walked the route just like I had before the surgery, strong and fast, pumping my arms and feeling the wind in my face.
I had started out taking small, shaky steps holding on to my husband’s arm. Now I was making good progress – yes.
A New Normal
You would think that as personal trainer, I would know better than anyone that we all start where we are.
I’ve seen one person conquer an exercise on their first try, another struggle for awhile before getting it, and still another whom the exercise just didn’t fit so we tried something else.
The truth is that I’m just like most people who find themselves faced with a challenges or goal: I compare myself to others to find a frame a reference, a role model, hope, and possibility.
I don’t think comparing ourselves to others is inherently a bad thing. In some cases, it can be motivating to find someone who is a few steps – or a lot of steps – ahead of ourselves.
But we need to allow ourselves room to go at a different pace, take different steps, or even end up with a very different result than anyone else.
One year later, I’m back to feeling strong and fit.
Am I exactly back to where I was prior to my mastectomies?
That matters less than building on the new normal I have today.
I love a good challenge, though, and will keep pushing using me as my best frame of reference.
And if I never get back to eight unassisted pull ups? That’ll be ok with me, because it will be because I chose not to.
Now that’s a perspective I can live with.