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How I Worked Out On Chemotherapy

Thinking back some 15 years ago or so undergoing nine months of chemotherapy during the so-called “prime” of my life brings on feelings of both “holy crap, that was a long time ago” and “man, it still feels close to home.” We all have similar episodes in our lives where we wonder where the time has gone and simultaneously feel like it could have happened just yesterday.

This past February 19th was the day of the year of 2004 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease; an immune-type cancer that was an unwelcome guest in my bodybuilder physique. At the time I was knee-deep in competing on the drug-free bodybuilding circuit slowly but surely climbing the ranks and having a ball doing it.

But a funny thing happened on the way to seemingly endless tests, scans, and prodding by the doctors. I almost instinctively started to look way past the chemo treatments and made my own plans for recovery. But more on that later.

A Mental Shift

Upon diagnosis I was (to say the least) a bit (okay, a lot) frustrated, confused, and antsy. One of my hangups is my need to have a plan of action. Before laying out the treatments, precautions, and expectations my feet felt like they were a few inches off the ground. I wasn’t very grounded or sure of what was about to happen.

Once the oncology visit was said and done I felt like I was given the green light to move forward and prepare for battle. I felt at peace.

Now when it comes to training, I was used to “killing it” in the gym. Every workout was a step closer to my ideal physique for competition. I was always trying to make weaker body parts better all the while designing a more balanced, aesthetic look. Strength, power, and lean muscle were just a few things on my to-do list every time I stepped foot in the gym.

I knew I would eventually need to downshift things like intensity in addition to the progressive mindset. No longer could I nurture the expectation of daily improvement to my body. Instead I would have to adopt a maintenance (at best) mentality moving forward during treatment.

This Isn’t So Bad

At first I purposely threw myself into the “go through the motions” type of thought process. Since training was such a part of my DNA and something I truly loved to do, I could easily go on autopilot while I took more time researching my cancer, treatments, and preparations for the work to come.

Surprisingly, nothing changed much in the beginning. With the need to stay in a routine I continued to go to the gym, train with intensity, and eat for recovery. Of course this wouldn’t last too long, and I knew that, but I wanted to take advantage of this time believing I was building resilience mentally and physically.

You could almost classify this time period as a “wait and see” phase of chemotherapy. Even though I was getting sick from the chemo my body seemed to be bouncing back from the initial impact of each treatment rather well. The first few days were rough, but I had enough strength to recover decently and move on.

Yeah, I’m Starting to feel It

After a few (and I mean few) treatments I started to feel the unique effects of chemotherapy. Namely the cumulative impact of pumping numerous medicines though my veins to combat the mutated cells and not to mention the chemicals used to stave-off nausea, help white blood cell counts, and sedative drugs for pain. In other words, the longer one is on chemo the worse (not better) it gets.

My training started to suffer for two reasons. The most obvious one was the fact that I was feeling weaker, had dwindling energy levels, and just wasn’t recovering all that well. The other was the forethought that I would have to come up with a game plan for recovering from workouts in regard to the increasingly cumulative drudgery of chemo. I would need to shift my mindset from training as usual to training with a minimalist mindset. Doing just enough to get a training effect so I could feel just a little better a few days per week and also feel like I was still an active part of the workout fabric of my life.

Putting the Gym on the Back-burner

Of course months down the road I was forced to mainly just short walks outside. Some light activity would exhaust me. I started to take more days off work in order to recover from treatments, but I still had it in my head that I needed some sort of physical activity in order to not only help with energy and recuperation, but also for my psychological and emotional health. Even the slightest bit of endorphins, I felt, would help with my overall feeling of getting better even though I felt worse each and every day.

My once strong, broad, mighty physique was now a shadow of its former self. Muscle was soft, weak, and tired. A body that was once useful and full of energy was now constantly fatigued. I felt like I was just surviving physically. But a funny thing happened along the way.

Keeping the Vision

As my body seemed to have been failing me (but getting rid of the unwelcome intruder) my mind was layering itself with armor. It was strengthening every single month, week, and day. From the very minute I was given a plan of action regarding treatment my mind went into overdrive by looking far ahead after remission and scheming how it would get revenge at this hardship.

The vision never left me. It enabled me, someone who spent hours, days, weeks, months, and years building a physique from the ground up, to be completely okay with losing muscle, strength, and basically my health and wellness temporarily. To accept this “timeout” in my life in order to do my “homework” for a little while.

I never once thought I wouldn’t beat cancer. I never once thought in terms of “if I’ll make it.” I was always set on life after cancer, getting back in the gym, and the road to becoming better.

Little By Little

I didn’t spare a moment. Getting back into the gym, rebuilding my body, and forging an even harder mentality I quickly reentered the world or iron. I knew, however, I had to temper my enthusiasm as I was still recovering from the battle; battered, bruised, and knocked down, but I learned to channel that energy and control it. I learned to trickle it out as I started back three days per week on a full body routine acclimating my system to handle more and more loads.

Soon after, three months or so, I felt the familiar momentum kick in. Muscle growth and increased strength became accelerated. It was as if I were beginning all over again, but this time I was wiser and more resilient than ever. I also appreciated every day I was able to lift anything. It was a unique opportunity, a gift.

A little over one year after my last chemotherapy session I was back on stage competing in another bodybuilding competition. Yes, it was like picking up where I left off – just like I had envisioned it all those tough, nauseating months. The vision became reality.

Training During Chemo

Training during any hardship oftentimes doesn’t resemble a normal day at the gym. We are forced to modify, downshift, and evolve our schedules, training plans, and intensity all the while keeping our vision at the forefront. Even though we live and breath the lifestyle, we have to sometimes take a step back and do what we can not exactly what we want to do.

Training during chemo taught me that I was comfortable putting my personal desires aside while I focus on survival, my health, and not to mention those around me. If you’re going through something try to see beyond the hardship, beyond the here and now. Have a clear vision of what that looks like. Let that be your guide and let it saturate your mind. It will help carry you along to the other side.

By Brad Borland

Cancer Survivor, Military Veteran, University Lecturer, Strength Coach, Natural Drug-Free Bodybuilder, Husband, Father

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