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Lifestyle column: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Posted by on August 8th, 2014 at 10:15 am

cathy-hastie
Lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie in a 2013 photo.

Editor’s note: Lifestyle columnist Cathy Hastie was a remarkably healthy cancer patient. Then she stopped bike commuting. Here, she describes what happened next.

Six months ago, I was healthy.

At 5’11″ and 160 lbs, my body was capable of just about anything I asked it to do, from hoisting boxes to dancing the two-step to running a few miles through the neighborhood. I wasn’t overly demanding, forcing myself to reach for some calculated heart rate or working towards 9 percent body fat. I simply had a body that worked, and worked well. Even though I had cancer.

No one could tell I was battling my own body’s errant cell-production assembly line. I sat for chemo once every three weeks, followed by more chemo in the form of pills taken every day. I went to work like everyone else. I volunteered. I directed a children’s play after school. Luckily, side effects didn’t stop me from living a full life. The cancer treatment had become my new “normal,” and I barely noticed it myself most days.

Six months ago, I rode my bike to work every day, just like I had been doing for almost 20 years. My ride wasn’t far – only 7 miles round trip, five times a week. It wasn’t grueling: I rode most days without breaking much of a sweat. But it was consistent. Rain or shine, I spent a small portion of most days since my 25th birthday on the seat of a bicycle. Not much could dissuade me from the daily practice of moving my body.

On top of the exercise component, I simply enjoyed it. Biking brought fresh air into my lungs, pumped blood to my extremities, and brought a sense of calm and appreciation as I moved through the city’s daily machinations. Details, blurry when passed at the speed of a car, revealed themselves as I took in lilting lilies, swaying birches, jumping dogs, toddling toddlers. My daily commute was a lesson in art appreciation and bolstered my sense of humor. I quietly laughed at impatient drivers, unruly jaywalkers and bickering construction crews. My special 20 minutes each morning sent me gliding by all the roughness of cantankerous cranks caught in consternation in their cars. Bicycle commuting not only kept my body working, it stabilized my mental health.

Then, five months and three weeks ago, everything changed. My employer assigned me to a position 17 miles from home. I had to give up my bike commute.

I started driving 40 minutes each morning, 30 each evening. Unless there was an unpredictable traffic snarl, in which case I spent upwards of 80 minutes sitting on my derriere conducting my own personal metal box through a rat-maze of fellow drivers. Tired from sitting erect and still for hours at a time, I didn’t have the time or energy at the end of the day to add on a bike ride or a swim. So I did nothing.

My back started to hurt.

It didn’t help that my new desk was a card table crammed into the corner of somebody else’s cubicle, or that I was hunched over my laptop for 8 hours a day, without a separate monitor or a standard keyboard. My ergonomic situation was deplorable.


I knew the situation could easily spiral downward. So I tried to walk at lunch, but the pain in my back slowed me down to a point where I couldn’t make more than a few blocks at a time. Hoping to let my aching muscles recuperate, I stopped, cold turkey, all forms of exercise.

It seems the daily practice of a pleasent, earnest, meaningful physical activity had been a major support to my overall good health. Without it, I was slowly succumbing to the normal side effects of cancer.

Bad idea. The back pain became debilitating. I couldn’t focus at work. I started going home early at least a few times a week, simply to lay myself out, flat on my back on the floor, and allow the tension to subside.

I asked my doctor for pain meds. He prescribed a narcotic. I was losing weight. Without exercise, I didn’t need to eat as much. I was lethargic and didn’t feel like eating anyway. My healthy 160 lbs slid downwards at an alarming rate: 150 lbs, 145 lbs, 141 lbs.

I looked at my body and saw a skeleton with flabby skin attached – wobbly triceps, like my 100-year old great-grandma’s.

Depressingly, I measured my muscles with a two-fingered pinch instead of what used to be a grabby handful. I couldn’t wear any of the clothes I owned without looking like a sloppy clown. The crotch in my trousers hung 12 inches lower than it should. My butt had disappeared. There was a gap between my thighs. I could count my ribs.

So I bought all new clothes. A month later, I did it again. I was now shopping at the teenager store with my 14-year old daughter. We shared clothes. It was laughable. Me, almost qualifying as an Amazon at 5’ 11”, wore the same size as a 5’ 4” adolescent. (I had always wanted to share clothes when I actually was an adolescent, but I was too big then! Oh, the irony!)

When the scale at the doctor’s office read 137 – a few pounds less than my godson – I cried. I was getting scared. I asked my doctor if I looked unhealthy. “Too skinny?” I asked.

“You are very slim,” was her response.

It was a wake-up call. I traced it directly back to the sacrifice of my bike commute. It seems the daily practice of a pleasent, earnest, meaningful physical activity had been a major support to my overall good health. Without it, I was slowly succumbing to the normal side effects of cancer. I actually looked like a cancer patient now: skinny, weak, wan, panting. It was embarrassing. It was life-threatening.

Today, I am trying to return to those days I took for granted. Whether my biking habit actually staved off a flurry of cancer activity and calmed typical chemo side effects is impossible to know. But it was a grave loss and I didn’t recognize how serious it was until too late. I can’t magically assign myself to a job closer to home, but I am now trying to recreate the magic of a daily bike experience. I am easing back into a routine that combines moving my body, relaxing and quietly observing the world around me. Three key ingredients to my good health; three things I lost when I gave up my bike commute.

— Read Cathy’s past columns here.


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Comments
  • Ian Stude August 8, 2014 at 10:37 am

    One of the best and most moving articles in the history of BikePortland. Thank you, Cathy.

    Recommended Thumb up 43

  • rainbike August 8, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Tom Danielson was interviewed during the Tour of Utah. He said, “Every day on the bike is a gift”. So true.

    Good luck with your recovery.

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  • MeghanH August 8, 2014 at 10:58 am

    I hope, Cathy, that you regain everything you want, and soon. Especially a clean bill of health and your bike commute. Good thoughts to you…

    Recommended Thumb up 18

  • Jerryw August 8, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Fight hard Cathy, let us know how you are doing. Maybe drive part of the way to work and ride your bike the equivalent of your previous commute. An inexpensive car bike rack can be found. Just a thought :-)

    Recommended Thumb up 11

  • Dave August 8, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    From a fellow cancer patient, hang in there and remember that automobiles are the root of all evil.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • Mossby Pomegranate August 9, 2014 at 6:59 am

      Oh boy.

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  • Scott H August 8, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    One of the few things worse than cancer, is the treatment for it.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • RH August 8, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    What if you still biked 7 miles roundtrip…drive partway to work and then bike the rest? All you need is a bikerack for your trunk. :)

    Recommended Thumb up 8

    • KristenT August 8, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      Or a Subaru Forester, I can put two bikes inside my Forester and still have room for one more person and two people’s stuff.

      You should be able to put a bike in just about any car, simply be removing one wheel and creatively placing it in the back seat. Probably wouldn’t work well in a Smart, though.

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      • Spiffy August 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm

        I was surprised that my gf got my bike with the huge front rack into her newer VW Beetle…

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      • gutterbunnybikes August 8, 2014 at 5:14 pm

        Or for much less money a decent folding bike. Seems kind of silly to buy a car to transport a bike, when there are bikes designed specifically for the purpose of multimodal transportation. Brompton, Dahon, Bike Friday. Or you can go vintage with a Raleigh, Bickerton, and Moultan.

        Wouldn’t recommend the old Peugeot folders unless you like to wrench and search for parts, they’re good bike but tricky.

        You’d be surprised how nice of ride the folders can be. They’re quick and nimble, and comfortable with mid sized tires.

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  • q`Tzal August 8, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Too bad health insurance companies don’t try to financially inventivize their companies to assist and support a routine exercise regimen amongst it covered employees.

    Be it an on site gym where employees are payed for their time staying healthy, or mandated schedule flexibility for those walking or bicycing and real locker rooms with showers that get cleaned regularly.
    So little needs to be invested up front to reap a large reward in employee health, attendance, retention and loyalty.

    Or they could keep treating us like a commodity. Brings to mind the phrase “first against the wall when the revolution comes”.

    Recommended Thumb up 8

  • MadKnowledge August 8, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    I have no idea what your financial situation or commute routes are like, but have you considered an electronic-assisted bike? The gas saved by not driving would probably pay for the bike in a year or so, and you could still get your physical and mental exercise in while making the longer commute by bike more realistic.

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    • RH August 8, 2014 at 5:29 pm

      I would gladly donate some money to help make this happen.

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      • gl. August 8, 2014 at 6:23 pm

        +1!

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    • Cathy Hastie August 11, 2014 at 10:36 am

      I love this idea! Even though I think of myself as far too young to need assistance, the truth is, I do.

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  • Matt August 8, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    +2

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  • wsbob August 8, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Cathy…don’t know what allowances your employer may be prepared to make for your situation, but I think about what I’ve heard Nike does for employees. Vague on the details, but have heard the company offers employees quite a bit of flexibility in their daily schedule, so they can get in a workout sometime during the day if they need or want to. Still have to put in a full day, but the employee has some liberty to work the specifics out.

    I’d like to think suggestions others have made about folding bikes, and driving just part way to work, biking the rest of the way, may be of help.

    Some jobs’ limitation on physical activity during the course of the working day appears to be extremely hard on employees’ health. Bus driving, for example. Lots of stress, stuck in the seat all day long, drivers can easily get out of shape, overweight, depressed and more. Understand Trimet tries to counter health issues by having gym equipment available to employees.

    It should be worth it for companies to take steps towards helping the people working for them be healthy. If a person’s struggle to combat an illness as serious as cancer, can be made more successful by something as simple as daily physical exercise, that opportunity ought to be taken advantage of somehow. Much more economical than expensive pharmaceuticals, medical tests and treatments, therapy. I wonder what Hastie’s employer’s thoughts on this may be.

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  • dr2chase August 8, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    It’s a shame you can’t get a prescription for a bicycle-friendly commute. Again and again, studies show that exercise works wonders in general, it surely did in this specific case, but good luck getting payment as if this were medicine or physical therapy.

    Best of luck, I hope you reverse this setback. I hope your employer is a little embarrassed, too.

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  • TOM August 9, 2014 at 7:59 am

    Explain all this to the employer , and see IF it’s possible to relocate your job to the older location ?

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  • Dana Hubbard August 9, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Park your bike 7 miles from work. Jeez!

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  • ME Fitz August 9, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Cathy – I am also a mom and having a 17+ mile commute each way. This does makes carving out the bike routine more challenging. I bike one way and take the bus home a couple times a week. You love the bike. You will find a way. Sending you good bike energy!

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Steve popp August 9, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    Can You drive half way to work then bike the rest of the way

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Jeff Walenta August 9, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    An ebike seems like the answer it will give you the range you need but you will still get some physical activity in as well

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Murph August 10, 2014 at 7:07 am

    Your ergonomic situation is illegal. If they have space for a card table, they at least have space for you to stand up to work, which I recommend.

    I don’t have a solution for incorporating biking in a commute to Vancouver, but good luck finding time to bike again!

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Matt Wade August 10, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    I can absolutely relate to Cathy’s commute loss! While I don’t have cancer, I’ve been riding my bike to and from work with regularity for almost 15 years. I recently switched jobs (going from a job without insurance to a job with excellent insurance and a raise to boot) and stopped riding my bike because my job was no longer 3.5 miles away but 15.6 miles. The commute is usually 25 minutes there and an hour back in normal workday hours.
    I’m lethargic, unmotivated, not eating as much, and feel mildly depressed.The drive itself, besides the commute time, is stressful and tiring. It just saps the energy out of me! The irony, right? When I rode to work my heart rate would increase and I’d be sweating, exerting far more energy. BUT, I’d love it! When driving, I just sit there focusing on the bumper in front of me and negotiate drivers jockeying for lanes (myself included), and I feel WAY more tired after my commute.
    I now have to find the time to ride at least as much as I would when I was commuting by bike. It’s the only way I can see getting my health back. Even this is sometimes a struggle since now my commute is roughly 1.5hrs round trip, finding the time and energy to ride 7-8 quick miles is stretching my time. Moving shouldn’t be the best option but it does seem to be the only way I can realistically commute by bike again. I’m sure there are people who regularly commute 10-15 miles (or more) but I think it’s safe to say they’re in the minority. Kudos to them, though.
    Thanks for the article. Cathy- I hope you (we) can both get back on a good exercise schedule and feel and BE healthier again!

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • Cathy Hastie August 11, 2014 at 10:43 am

      I truly beleive that taking away the bike commute can cause all those things you mention. Something so simple can be so powerful for our health – it’s both good news (for those who can) and bad news (for those who can’t). I am convinced that my commute was one of the keys to my high quality of life so far.

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  • Exit Flagger August 11, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    I hope you’ll be able to use that higher-level position to transition yourself into a new job soon. I can’t drive at all for health reasons, but I can bike, and I don’t think there’s any amount of money that would convince me to give up my bike commute to go to transit. I know that I wouldn’t fit in the exercise time, it’s just not a priority for me compared to other things, but I don’t “lose” that time when I commute by bike. The bus that goes to Vancouver does have a bike rack on the front (just like Trimet) if you want to go multi-modal, but that’s also probably not sustainable over time.

    Could you convince your doctor to write a “prescription” for your employer stating you have to return to the old location? It seems clear to me that your health problems are connected.

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  • J4son August 12, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Cathy, your determination to gain utility and convenience from your biking has inspired me personally in many ways. Your columns at Portland Afoot, and then on BikePortland have always been a highlight for me, and there is no doubt you will work back to your happy commuting routine.

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  • Jim S August 13, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Cathy, we are in pretty similar situations – I also get chemo every 3 weeks and have been able to live and ride with cancer, and have also found that cycling and exercise makes such a big difference. I hope you find a solution and with it a return to riding and physical vitality.

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  • Maria August 13, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Cathy, I’m so sorry you’re hurting. Thank you for sharing your story. I encourage you to ride the “too long” commute. Add a trimet section to make it more reasonable? Drive one day and leave your bike there, then alternate driving and biking? It might be hard but I know you can do it and I know it will make a difference.

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  • Lester Luallin August 19, 2014 at 1:26 am

    Multi-modal would be the way I’d go. Live anywhere near the Max? Take it to the end of the yellow line if work in West Van, or end of the red line if work in East Van. Ride the rest of the way.

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