Are You Starting The Cancer Triathlon? The mental challenge may be the toughest part so draw on your past…
A few years before I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I started doing triathlons. I’d worked my way up to the 70.3 distance and was training for the full Ironman when I found out I’d be sidelined for a year of treatment.
It seemed obvious that being in good physical condition as I headed into this would be an advantage but what surprised me was how much the triathlon experience also helped me mentally.
My stage-3 diagnosis qualified me for the full cancer experience: Radiation, Surgery, and Chemo. As my treatment progressed, I discovered that the three phases of it were much like the three stages of a triathlon. The triathlon is a swim, a bike ride, and a run. At the Ironman distance, it’s a 2.4 mile swim; a 112 mile bike; and a 26.2 mile marathon.
Physically both cancer treatment and a triathlon are challenging, but in very different ways. The stronger similarity is the mental cycle you go through…the little breaks between phases, the ups & downs along the way, and the cumulative toll that multiple phases take on you.
As I started my treatment on day #1, I was excited to get started. It felt familiar…some nerves, but full of energy and ready to get going. I realized that it was like the start of a race when you are happy to hit the water and start moving.
After a month of daily radiation, I was feeling the burn and the fatigue and ready to be done. Again, it felt familiar…by the end of the swim, you are ready to get out of the water.
Then you get a little recovery time before the next phase of treatment…the surgery. And in a triathlon, you also get a break called “transition 1” or T1 to prepare for the next phase of the race…the bike.
The break helped and I was ready to have surgery. Same with a triathlon…after transitioning from the swim, you head out on the bike glad to be moving again. But you are not quite as fresh as at the start because the swim takes a toll.
By the end of the bike, you just want to get off that thing and out of the saddle. And you probably hit a few bumps in the road or maybe got delayed with a flat. Surgery is that way too…pretty tough and maybe some surprises.
Now you get a second recovery time before the last phase of treatment: chemotherapy. In a triathlon, it’s called T2 as you prepare to go out on the run. In both 'races' they save the most challenging phase for the end.
Now the multiple phases have taken a cumulative toll. You cannot fully recover before it’s time to get moving again. You may have some doubts. Can you do this? And your mindset has shifted from “I’m excited to be in the race” to “Let’s just get this last phase done”.
Now the grind starts. Chemo is tough from day one…the run is tough. One foot in front of the other. You are not moving fast…your mind goes to dark places…you are breaking down physically and mentally…quitting occurs to you.
But someone in the crowd cheers you on…a little encouragement is huge. You start to really notice the people running alongside you and help each other. And, eventually, the finish line within reach. And your family & friends are waiting for you. And it’s pretty darn sweet.
So know that your treatment will have mental ups & downs as well as physical challenges.
Draw on your past…moving to a new town, starting a new school, raising kids. The experience where you were excited but scared…where some things went well and others were tougher than you expected.
You may not realize it, but you’ve been through this before…and that helps.