Cancer beats you up, both emotionally and physically. There’s no easy way around that.
I never realized just how much until I was diagnosed with breast cancer myself in 2006. Suddenly everything I knew – my master’s degree and experience are both in exercise physiology – temporarily evaporated when I fully grasped the challenges I faced in recovery.
And like thousands of women every year, I felt unprepared. Even with my knowledge of physiology and my experience as a business woman, exercise physiologist and Pilates instructor, I still felt unprepared.
But even before that happened I had already started to work with breast cancer survivors through a wellness studio I operated. What amazed me was the fact that I continued to see women who had lymph node surgery yet had been discharged without a road map for recovering the use of their affected arm. This is so important for both mobility and long-term quality of life, especially if the affected arm is the woman’s dominant arm. You wouldn’t have any kind of shoulder surgery, or hip replacement for example, without a physical therapy prescription. But breast cancer patients rarely had one even though the scapular, or shoulder, region is often greatly impacted by the surgery. With my educational background and experience as a Pilates instructor, I started to develop a post-operative rehabilitation program to help women recover.
Pilates is the best possible program for post-operative rehabilitation. Many people don’t realize this but Pilates was originally developed to assist veterans returning from World War I. Joseph Pilates believed that the mind and body were inter-related and that the key to strength was to stabilize the central, or core muscles. In fact, I believe that any woman undergoing surgery for breast cancer when discharged, should be prescribed a follow-up plan for physical therapy. Lymph node dissection and radiation, together or separately, are just two factors for lymphedema, a painful and sometimes disfiguring swelling of the soft tissue in the arm. So as I continued to see more and more survivors I continued to build the Pink Ribbon Program, which was officially established in 2004.
Then as luck would have it, I made a decision that would both save my life and affirm my mission. I’d been thinking about having breast reduction surgery for a few years and came across some information on a new procedure at the NYU Medical Center during a random internet search. Even though I wasn’t a candidate for the procedure I went ahead with the reduction because the doctor was excellent. When the tissue from the surgery was biopsied, an early cancer was discovered. I knew I would have a mastectomy. That part was actually very easy for me.
But I wasn’t prepared for the psychological aspect at all. I felt like there was a train going through my head all the time. Then I had one of those “moments” that many cancer survivors talk about. I was in pain and thought taking a shower might help. Without thinking I reached up to shampoo my hair with my affected arm. I’ll tell you something, a stream of rockets went off in my skull. I started crying and my first thought was: Even with everything I know how am I ever going to get my arm mobility back? In the next moment I thought: how do women do this who don’t have the knowledge I possess? That’s when I realized that I was not only on the right track with the Pink Ribbon Program but that it needed to be even bigger. My effort needed to be much broader, and reach into the medical field and cancer centers. That’s when I knew educating women and the medical profession about rehabilitation following breast cancer surgery was my mission. That is why I’m here. That’s how I could transform my cancer experience.
What’s essential for all breast cancer survivors to remember is this: physical recovery of your arm is a gentle process that can take up to a year or more. There is no rushing this process. The Pink Ribbon Program is a six-week program that gets you started. Working this program takes you through a gradual, phased process. I’ve seen survivors who eventually develop a much higher level of fitness and self-esteem than they had before cancer, and this is gratifying. But it’s essential for them to know what to do.
There are two things I’m glad to share with you: you can be even better than you were before, you can be even more. Let’s spread the word.