Walking Away From Cancer

And after all the violence and double talk
There’s just a song in the trouble and the strife
You do the walk, you do the walk of life

Lyrics to a popular song

 

Having cancer can feel like being in prison, especially when you’re undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, or any other number of aggressive treatments. You watch your family, close friends, and everyone around you continue to live normal lives, as your own existence becomes increasingly constrained. This was my personal experience when my ovarian cancer caused me to spend seven weeks in the hospital and when I underwent five rounds of chemotherapy. I was left exhausted, miserable and temporarily unable to engage in an active or fulfilling life.

Now that I’ve achieved remission I’ve gratefully resumed doing many of the things that I took for granted before my diagnosis, most of all I appreciate the freedom of being outside and going for long walks. It’s been a relatively mild winter in southern Alberta and this weather has been perfect for maintaining my daily walking routine. I usually prefer to walk alone and in the morning, this practice seems to help me achieve the maximum emotional and psychological benefits. Of course there are particular occasions when walking with others is the best choice, I’ve proudly marched with close to 400 people in the 5 kilometre Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope. Each year this Canada-wide event raises about 2 million dollars for research, awareness and support.

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Study after study has extolled walking as a simple, inexpensive exercise with incredible health benefits. From a cancer patient’s perspective, walking regularly has been proven to strengthen the body and ease the mind. Several recent studies suggest that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of the cancer coming back, and longer survival after a cancer diagnosis. Here are some other recent findings regarding the advantages of exercise, specifically walking:

  • A daily one hour walk can cut your risk of obesity in half.
  • Thirty to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week drastically lowers your risk of heart disease.
  • Logging 3500 steps a day lowers your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 29 per cent.
  • Walking for just two hours a week can lower your risk of having a stroke by 30 per cent.
  • Walking for 30 minutes a day can reduce symptoms of depression by
    36 per cent.

IMG_0152A number of experts advocate walking as a form of meditation to help relieve stress or anxiety. For instance, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic Full Catastrophe Living includes an entire chapter on walking meditation. Many people with chronic illnesses, including cancer, find that they enjoy walking more when they intentionally practice being aware of their breathing and of their feet and legs with every step. There are numerous ways in which walking can help you gain greater self-awareness, as I stride down a sidewalk or path I will often utilize my senses to make me more conscious of the moment. One day I might concentrate on my sense of touch and notice the wind in my hair or the warmth of the sun on my face. The next time I’m out for a walk I’ll focus on my sense of smell and how the delicious aroma of our neighbourhood bakery is apparent when you come within about half a block of the bread and pastries.

Finally, there is growing evidence that walking stimulates our creativity and though processes. We can thank Steve Jobs for the business community’s blossoming love affair with the mobile meeting. “Taking a long walk was his preferred way to have a serious conversation,” observed Walter Isaacson in his bestselling biography of Apple’s co-founder. Some studies have actually indicated a link between walking and memory. One study found that walking 40 minutes three times a week might protect the brain region associated with planning and memory. This is significant for cancer patients, since a fair number of us report issues with recall and comprehension that are related to chemotherapy or other treatments.

Walk of Hope

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week I participated in my first ever cancer fundraising event, the 2013 Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope. On September 8 thousands of Canadians came together in over 45 communities. We all had one common goal—to overcome ovarian cancer. Together we raised $2.4 million to bolster awareness, research and programs designed to offer assistance to those with the disease. My mom and brother Ray were both eager to sign up with me for the event, so the three of us walked resolutely with several hundred others through North Glenmore Park in Calgary. Given my athletic abilities and physical condition, I opted for the shorter 2.5 km route rather than the full 5 km course. The weather cooperated with us. There had been cool winds and torrential rain the day prior to the walk, but the morning of September 8 was flawless and sunny with only the faintest hint of breeze.

One highlight of the event was a speech from Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi. As he addressed the crowd from an outdoor stage, he reminded us of the future generations of ovarian cancer patients that will benefit from our efforts, women who have yet to be diagnosed. I am a case in point, ten years ago when the Calgary version of the walk fundraiser was founded I was still blissfully ignorant. I never dreamt in those days that I would become a member of a rather exclusive and unfortunate fellowship of ovarian cancer survivors. Friends and family members of those who have lost their battle with the disease were present in large numbers. Countless people are motivated to participate in the Walk of Hope each year in memory of someone they cherished. But Nenshi also drew attention to the fact that complete strangers will ultimately benefit from our collective endeavours and that there is power in working toward a goal together.

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Posing with my mom and brother Ray at the 2013 Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope. Over 200 participants were at the fundraising event.

For women, such as myself, engaged in a personal battle with ovarian cancer the reasons for participating in major fundraising events are often deeper. We know that we have what is considered to be the most dangerous of the gynecological cancers—we face high recurrence rates and an overall five-year survival rate of less than 30 per cent. Walking through Glenmore Park, I look around at other women who are actively fighting this disease and I appreciate that we are the brave few who are in remission or who have managed to beat the odds of recurrence. For me walking is a way of feeling more in control and less helpless against a disease that has ruthlessly invaded my body and that kills approximately 1750 Canadian women each year. It’s also a way for me to celebrate all that I do have in my life, and to remind myself that I have more than just cancer.

American journalist, Karin Diamond, expresses these sentiments eloquently in a current online article entitled Cancer Is Not All I Have. Although Diamond isn’t one of the thousands of women with gynecological cancer, she is engaged in a battle with recurrent, chemo-resistant Hodgkin Lymphoma. It persists despite slews of drug combinations, radiation, two stem-cell transplants, immunotherapy, and clinical trials. The 30-year-old acknowledges that there are very few medical treatment options left for her to try. Still the tone of Diamond’s Huffington Post feature isn’t despairing. Throughout it she juxtaposes images of her cancer-ravaged body and other stark cancer related descriptions with the magnificence that remains in her life. Essentially her blog post is a tribute to all that she is fortunate enough to enjoy, including her husband, her family and her career. “I have a good, no a great, no an utterly balls-out fabulous life and more importantly, the capacity to understand its impermanence,” Diamond writes.  “Sure, I have some things that I don’t need, ahem, cancer, but I have everything I do need. Right here. Right now. I revel in that comfort and wonder how I got it so good.”

As I proudly cross the finish line in the 2013 Ovarian Cancer Canada Walk of Hope suddenly my life doesn’t seem so bad either.