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.