A brilliant fall.

October is one of my favorite months, and one in particular was extra special. We’ve had the most amazing weather the past couple of weeks, with plenty of 60-70 degree days and abundant sunshine. The leaves have been especially colorful and it’s seemed like the foliage has lingered for a while. And I’ve continued on the up and up, both physically and mentally.

I’ve been loving all my time outside, but I’ve been especially loving mountain biking these past few weeks. I was largely off my mountain bike all summer — first because I had to heal from surgeries, then I was worried about crashing and getting all bloody while I was neutropenic, then I hurt my toe and couldn’t wear my bike shoes and didn’t want to ride rocky trails in Bedrock Sandals, and finally towards the end of the summer I lacked the power in my legs to ride anything remotely steep or technical (which much of the local riding is). Now my legs are feeling a million times better and I feel like I haven’t missed a beat. I would have assumed that with all the time off the trails, I would have felt rusty when it comes to technical skills, but I’ve cleaning gnarly uphill rock gardens no problem, maybe even easier than ever before. Maybe it’s pure excitement just to be out doing it again, or maybe it’s a newfound “just go for it” attitude, but I’ve been feeling really good on my mountain bike, both in terms of strength and skills. That exuberance to be back on the trails defined much of this past October.

Riding through chemo raised the bar of how crappy I could feel and still get out there and enjoy myself. While I may not feel amazing and super strong every ride, it’s all better than how I felt from May til September. My legs may be sore because I’ve done tough mountain bike rides for the past 4 days in a row, but it’s nothing like the ache they experienced during my fourth month of chemo. Sometimes I feel tired because I’ve been on the go a lot, trying to pack it all in, but nothing compares to the third day after treatment, when I was so exhausted and brain-fogged I could barely make dinner or drag myself out for a walk. Every day that I feel good I appreciate it. It sounds so cliché, but when I started treatment in May I was skeptical that I would ever feel good again. I worried that I would be grappling with lingering fatigue, neuropathy, or heart or lung problems. I definitely didn’t expect to recover this quickly after finishing treatment.

I assume I am still lacking the endurance I had pre-cancer, simply because I haven’t done many long rides since before starting treatment. I say “assume” because I haven’t pushed myself too hard in that regard and don’t actually know for sure what I’m capable of right now. I’ve done a few 3-4 hour mountain bike rides, and a few weeks ago did a 4.5-hour mixed surface ride during which I felt better than expected, especially on the last climb 40 miles in. I knew it was the last climb and we were close to home, and it felt good to push myself and make my legs burn, which is something I really missed during those chemo months. Sometimes it feels really good to push hard and hurt a little, and sometimes it doesn’t. I use that as my guide for when to do so, and take advantage of the times when my body says go for it. I’m so happy that my body is telling me to go for it again.

I’ve been continue to recover mentally too. Many of the complicated feelings I described in my last post have faded away, at least for the time being. They may resurface at some point, particularly around the time of my next scan (early December) but for now, I am feeling truly happy — happier than I’ve been in a long time, even long before cancer. One morning earlier this week, as I was riding my bike to work while my upper body danced to the music in my single earbud and the rain streamed down but I didn’t care, I had a somewhat surprising thought. Cancer was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me, but it also could have been one of the best.

Quite honestly, when I was diagnosed, I was miserable. Not because of the diagnosis — it certainly didn’t make things any better — but I was miserable before that. My self-esteem was at rock bottom, my relationships were suffering, I was sure I was going to get fired from my job for just being terrible at everything, and the smallest problems felt like mountains to climb. Then I was confronted by a mountain taller than I could ever imagine, and nothing else mattered.

That dramatic perspective shift has stuck with me and I find myself not getting nearly as worried about the little things that used to make me extremely anxious. I think a part of that is that perspective that comes with going through such a traumatic life event, and part of it is a newfound confidence in myself. I made it through chemo and navigating medical system frustrations. During treatment, I sold two houses and bought a house and moved and kept working full time and rode my bike over 2,000 miles. I pushed through fatigue, nausea, and tons of anxiety to keep moving forward and living my life. I am a badass, and I no longer care what anyone else thinks of me because I know this fact.

I somehow made it out the other side better than when it all began, and that’s been a life-changing lesson too. A month ago, I had mixed feelings about how this experience would effect my tendency to jump to the worst case scenario. As time goes on and I get further out from the experience, it seems that it’s actually helped my anxiety. Something really bad did happen, but I got through it. None of the fears that I had about long-term side effects came true. Somehow, it all actually worked out and what started as a terrible experience ended up being a force for positive change.

7 Replies to “A brilliant fall.”

  1. My God Helena, your blogs always brings me to (happy) tears. Your writing is so very powerful, full of every emotion. If ever I, or a friend, had a cancer diagnosis I would want to give them your letters. Ie. You should write a book.😊
    I’m praying for your ‘all clear’ December scan. ❤️

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  2. Keep pushing the rock forward••••••so happy to hear of your progress and you are such an inspiration. Mazin••••••keep rock’n!

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  3. Helena…… Thank you for doing this. I have been sharing your thoughts with a young (32) friend who has been going through an unusual form of lymphoma, and she is finding them comforting.

    Also, if I can be of any help to you in terms of your spiritual walk, please feel free to touch base with me. I’m not a pastor, but am a long time man of faith—and an avid mountain biker (currently healing a broken hand, Bald Knob trail).

    I have you in my prayers.

    George

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  4. Helena,
    I just finished your “Keep Spinning” article in Adventure Cyclist. Way to go, kid! I’m glad to hear you’re doing great!
    As a lymphoma survivor and enthusiastic biker, yours was the first story I’ve read where I could fully relate to the experience of getting through chemo and (in my case) radiation, all while returning to biking as both a source of joy, but also a measure of my progress.
    Because my lymphoma evolved into something rather deadly, the only solution was a stem cell transplant. During the summer and fall of 2020, I went through preparatory rounds of chemo, then in December, 2020 I spent almost a month in the hospital in Pittsburgh. It began with five days of intensive chemo and two days of full-body radiation. I couldn’t have any visitors or leave the hospital, so I walked the halls of my floor and rode a spinner bike while I looked out on the world going by from the seventh floor.
    When I was released in early January, 2021, I was also severely immunocompromised, but craved the outside world. I began by walking five minutes up my street with my wife and back again, but could barely climb the five steps to our front door. For the first month I would extend the walks a bit at a time, seeking out level walks on trails or interesting city streets. Within a few weeks I resumed very gentle bike rides, gradually adding in the hills I love to climb and plunge down.
    Sorry to ramble on, but now Maggie and I are out biking almost every day on our Co-Motion tandem and life is great! And by the way, I’m 66. My oncologists said on several occasions that one of the reasons I responded so well to the brutalities of surgery, endless rounds of chemo and radiation, was that I had nothing else wrong with me, and I attribute most of my good health to a lifetime of biking.
    Thanks for listening, good luck with your scans (I’ll have my next CT Scan in December, 2022), and keep on biking!

    Bob Holder
    Tandem.cap@gmail.com

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    1. Bob, thank you so much for reading and sharing your story. I’m so happy that you are back on the bike and doing well after all that. Bikes are the best. Good luck with your scan too!

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  5. Helena,

    Like Bob in the earlier comment, I just finished reading your Keep Spinning article in Adventure Cyclist and enjoyed it so much. It also struck a chord with me. When I was 28 I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, went through surgery and chemo and developed acute myeloid leukemia as I was recovering from the chemo. Similar to Bob I went through a stem cell transplant. Following that I picked up hepatitis C from platelet transfusions. All this happened from 1987 to 1989. I am now 64 years old and cured of all three diseases.

    Sharing this with you as I know when I was young and frightened at my diagnosis, hearing from or reading about cancer survivors did so much to uplift me. As lifetime cyclist there is no doubt in my mind that it helped me endure all the treatments and all the bad days. Following my transplant, and starting slowly, I also have no doubt that cycling helped me immensely to regain my health. I still ride regularly and do a century or two each year. In fact, I’ll be doing a century ride around Lake Tahoe next June to raise money for the Leukemia Society through Team in Training (you may have heard of them). On a related note, I just did the GAPCO from Pittsburgh to DC a few months ago with my son and a friend – you’re so fortunate to have that nearby!

    In the aftermath of all the stuff I went through, there was fear and anxiety when I would go in for regular checkups and scans, but I can tell you that with time all that dread subsides. A few years later my wonderful oncologist released me from his care, he said there was no need for further follow-ups. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

    As a side note, your comments on “optic flow” make total sense to me. When I think of all the wonderful things I’ve seen and experienced on all my rides since I was a teenager, there’s no doubt that those things were building me up in some way. It makes me want to hop on my bike right now!

    Lastly, thanks for sharing your story, it is so inspiring. Congratulations on your recovery!

    Rob Larsen
    spreklarsen@yahoo.com

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