I’m stood in the gym changing room staring at myself in the mirror. I look a mess, like I swam to the gym.
30 minutes ago, I had been driving the girls to school under an inky black sky and through torrential rain. As the rain had lashed the windscreen the girls had squabbled next to me, shouting over the music blaring from the radio station. Arriving at school we had shuffled out of the car, Youngest swiftly depositing her lunchbox and bag into my outstretched arms. I carried them in one hand as I held onto her with my other hand. Behind me, Oldest had pulled her hood close around her face and, without a word of complaint, carried her heavy school bag. We skirted puddles as we kept our faces down, trying to shield ourselves from the driving rain.
The Morning Commute
As we arrived at the school door, Oldest shouted “I love you” as she dashed into the dry indoors. I carried on with Youngest, skirting around the outside of the school until we reached her classroom door. “You can go now mummy” Youngest informed me, practically pushing me away before grabbing her things and marching indoors. I resisted the urge to follow her into the corridor to help with her bags. We aren’t supposed to help them. The teacher tells us that we need to be teaching them independence, plus the corridor is narrow so they don’t really want parents clogging it up. I watch her through the window as she struggles to shed her coat. I fight the urge to run in and help her . Most of the time I find myself unable to resist and I follow her in, helping to hang her bag up and making sure that she has her snack for break and water bottle. I want to help her and I also want to delay the moment that I have to leave. I want to savour this ordinary carefree moment. I no longer take the school run for granted.
Back in the car I turn the heating up. I’m now sodden from the rain and I can feel a chill setting in. My immune system is still recovering from the chemo and I can’t afford to come down with a cold. I suddenly remember that I need to book my flu jab and I make a mental note to ring the doctors later. I turn the radio up to drown out the silence and the whirring cogs of my brain. I swing the car out of the school car park and head to the gym.
What I See In The Mirror
Now I’m stood in front of the mirror I give myself a rueful look. I’m not entirely happy with the reflection. I see a body that is overweight thanks to what I have had to endure this year. My coping mechanism became cake and lots of it. However, my body – the one that now carries a few more rolls – is strong and it fought for me when I needed it to. Under my t-shirt the scars from my bowel surgery are hidden; in my gym kit I could be anyone. I feel frustrated because when I look in the mirror I am not really seeing any noticeable changes despite my new fitness regime. Then I remind myself I have only been able to exercise consistently since I finished chemo. It’s not going to happen overnight.
Outside the changing room I can hear the gym music blaring. I psyche myself up. A part of me doesn’t want to go out there. I’m only too aware of how pitiful I must look as I slowly plod on the treadmill. Everything feels hard at the moment. Running, lifting weights, none of it is easy and it takes a real battle of wills to get through a workout. However, I remind myself of why I am doing it. I’m not exercising for vanity reasons. No, I’m not exercising so that I can fit into that little black dress, I’m exercising to stay alive. Although, losing a bit of weight so that my clothes fit better again is very much an added bonus.
Why I’m Exercising
Research has suggested that regular exercise can help bowel cancer survivors beat the disease for good. Various research papers suggest exercising for at least 150 minutes a week, with a mixture of cardio and weights. Last week I managed 305 minutes, but that’s only because I haven’t returned to work yet. I wonder if I will remain so diligent when I am working again. I have to remain diligent, I remind myself. But with all these things there is no definitive proof that exercise will keep me cancer-free. I could exercise and still get cancer again. I got it in the first place. At least by exercising I can tell myself that I am doing everything in my power to keep it at bay. I’m exercising because I owe it to my girls. I have to do everything in my power to stay healthy for them. I have to do everything in my power to ensure that I am around for them.
Another reason why I am exercising for my girls is that I want to show them I am still me. That this cancer didn’t define my whole year, that it didn’t rob me of myself. Yes, I had cancer, but I want to show them that it didn’t knock me down. I want to show them that I got back up again. I didn’t let cancer stop me.
Hiding On The Treadmill
I head out onto the gym floor and pick my treadmill. There is no-one on the treadmill next to me and I feel relieved. I can disappear when I’m on that treadmill. No one knows my back story, no one knows that I finished chemo for my cancer a couple of months ago. When I’m on that treadmill I can be anyone. Admittedly a very unfit anyone. I put on my headphones and choose some music to listen to on Spotify. My finger hovers over the Christmas playlist but I decide that it’s too soon. Instead I select a playlist titled Happy Hits. I then select Couch to 5km and week three. I’ve had to start all over again with my running and it frustrates me. I start my 5-minute walk, gearing myself up for my slow plod. My mind tunes in and out to the podcast. I let my mind wander as my feet rhythmically hit the treadmill. Around me are other people lost in their own world. In the corner of the gym some of the Jersey Rugby team lift weights, they don’t even break into a sweat. In front of me a man in his 70s does walking lunges. To the side of me a woman pedals as she absentmindedly scrolls her phone.
My legs feel like lead and I’m struggling to get my breath. If I think too much about what I am doing I start to panic and then I find it really hard to breathe. I tune back into the podcast to distract myself from what I’m doing. Give it ten more minutes, I tell myself, then if you are still feeling like this you can give up. But I push through the ten-minute barrier and I keep plodding to the end. Finally, Sarah Millican tells me that I’ve finished my run for the day, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I stumble to the changing rooms to get showered and changed.
The World Keeps Turning
Later I sit in the gym cafe, cup of steaming coffee in front of me. It’s still raining outside and the sky is a swirling grey mess. I hide behind my book, and conversations from nearby tables float towards me. The hot topic seems to be a certain member of the Royal family and the now infamous Newsnight interview. There are murmurs of scorn and disbelief. Then someone brings up Boris and a heated debate fills the air with anger. I’m invisible. I sit alone, sip on my coffee and I take a minute before I throw myself back into my day.
I can do this.