In my darkest days in the oncology unit, I promised myself that if I ever got into remission one day, I would become a stronger, healthier and better version of my precancer self. What could be a bigger inspiration to live a healthier life than surviving cancer? I imagined that once and for all I was going to become the kind of person who meditates every morning, guzzles green juice, does yoga and, on occasion, even runs a marathon.
Before my diagnosis with leukemia, two years ago at the age of 22, I’d always excelled at making resolutions. But I was never as good at keeping them. Like a lot of young people, I burned the candle at both ends, with an age-appropriate dose of invincibility. After working 100-hour weeks (or more) as a paralegal, my first job out of college, my way of letting loose after a long day was by meeting friends for cocktails after work, grabbing fast food on the go and staying up as late as I wanted. Resolutions came and went. I would get to them later, I told myself.
Then I learned I had cancer, and my life and my resolution-making were interrupted. Suddenly the scope of my worries had changed drastically. There was no time or space to stress over something as small as a three-day juice cleanse or a daily exercise program. Surviving my next cycle of chemotherapy became my singular concern.
Today, after two years of nonstop chemotherapy treatments, I’m finally getting some strength back. The future has been a place of fear and uncertainty since my diagnosis, but with only two monthlong cycles of chemo left, I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse of “normal” life. And naturally, as I’ve started to feel better, I’m also making resolutions again.
That’s how I found myself signing up to run a half-marathon, just eight months after undergoing a bone marrow transplant, a high-risk procedure that my doctors said was my only shot at a cure. Sure, I’d been bedridden for the better part of the past two years. And yes, I was still undergoing maintenance chemotherapy that left me so weak on some days that even walking my dog around the block felt like a challenge. But I’d heard the stories of superhuman cancer patients who had radically changed their lives and who went on to climb Mount Everest or run ultramarathons. I wanted to be one of them.
I got a gym membership, invested in a pair of fancy new running shoes and threw myself into an intensive workout regimen. I was off to the races. I even posted a triumphant picture on Facebook: There I was, one arm outstretched in a fist above my head, taking my first steps on a new marathon-training program I learned about from an iPhone app.
But my big running dreams lasted about 12 days.
I began to feel a nagging ache in the arches of my feet, and more pain in my shins. I iced the affected areas and continued my training, but the pain got worse. I didn’t want to give up, as I had with past resolutions. Certainly, I told myself, fighting cancer had made me tougher than a few simple aches and pains. But within a month, even walking had become excruciating. I hadn’t just overdone it. I had really hurt myself.
That’s how I ended up back in the emergency room, hooked up to a morphine drip — this time not for cancer-related reasons, but to get X-rays of my legs.
Luckily, nothing turned out to be seriously wrong. But my doctors, who hadn’t known about my do-it-yourself marathon training regimen, ordered me to stop immediately and to go back on bed rest. Was I crazy? they asked. All I knew was that I was back to square one, lying in bed feeling defeated and discouraged as I dug into a bag of jelly beans (my favorite).
In retrospect, a marathon so soon after my transplant was never a realistic or healthy option for me. It did, though, teach me an important lesson: Surviving a health crisis changes you in real and profound ways, but it doesn’t magically transform you into a healthier or better person overnight. Cancer has made me mentally and spiritually stronger. But as my life starts to go back to normal, I find that some of my old, bad habits are still lurking in the shadows.
I’m still struggling to figure out how to turn my resolutions into long-lasting change, but I’ve learned this much: Getting healthy starts with accepting the fact that after two years of cancer treatment, my body has taken a hit. Getting healthy means listening to my body — and no longer comparing myself with other people at the gym. Getting healthy means being satisfied with small, sustainable, incremental changes to my diet and lifestyle. I wanted to go from zero to 60, but I’m learning to accept zero to 15.
For now, my only resolution will be to define what my own “marathon” is. Only I can determine that. That’s probably not just a cancer problem; it’s a human one too.