Running Uphill, Literally and Figuratively

After my bilateral mastectomies in December of 2008, the physical healing moved along comfortably. Appreciating the progress made in arm movement and range of motion, I was especially looking forward to returning to running

The emotional healing progressed well too. I knew that would be more of a process, and unlike the physical healing, setbacks happened. It is an adjustment to be a woman without breasts. . . both on a private level as well as public.

When I went for my first run post-mastectomies, I was in Las Vegas with my sisters. Almost a month to the day since surgery, my sister Ruth and I headed out for a run on the famous Las Vegas Strip early in the morning. My first flat-chested and single-layered run felt great! Partly because when I left Minnesota a couple days prior it had been bitterly cold at 20 below zero. In Vegas, it was pleasant and in the sixties. Partly because I was anonymous. Thankfully, my self-consciousness was outweighed by the adrenaline rush that came.

One of the key reasons I had opted for bilateral mastectomies without reconstruction was to increase my odds of being able to keep running and to do so free of pain. But those first runs after surgery were emotionally trying. “The area formerly known as my breasts” was going to take some time to get used to.

I returned home and continued to increase my training mileage in preparation for the half marathon I planned to do on May 17, 2009, exactly 5 months to the day since surgery. I was protected from the cold and my emotional vulnerability by the layers I wore.

As spring came and temperatures warmed, I was feeling less inhibited by my flatness. It was freeing to change into my running attire and not have to wrestle with a couple of running bras. Equally appreciated was the joy I felt at being alive and done with the months of cancer treatment and surgeries.

When that half marathon neared, I still had fear and a level of insecurity about my first public run flat-chested. I bought a pink shirt and wore a hat with a pink ribbon on it. I have never liked pink and I like it even less since becoming part of the BC sisterhood. I was willing to put it on for that run though because then people would know I was a woman and they would know why my chest was flat.

Ultimately, I was wearing it for myself. The people I ran with that day probably didn’t notice or care much about my chest and the pink I had donned.

I never wore that shirt again. But I will never forget that morning and that half marathon. It was an amazing and celebratory experience. I was feeling so good, so inspired, I even stayed ahead of goal pace. The endorphins and emotions were flowing. Along the hilly course, I reflected on the figurative hills I had been climbing too.

Between miles 12 and 13, I experienced a rush of anger. It came on quickly and left quickly. Anger at cancer, for what it had brought to my life in the previous year and what it had taken from me. The anger was replaced by an overwhelming surge of triumph and freedom. A physical joy coursed through my body like none I had felt before. It was a freedom earned through difficult and trying times, through mortality faced and body parts removed.

I captured some of the feeling in this poem, written on May 3, mostly composed in my head between the footfalls of a three-miler. The rest wasn’t meant to be captured, just experienced.

Unfettered

Arms pumping
Legs churning
Endorphin onslaught
Clear head
Exhilarated spirit

Flat-chested
And free
Running free
Cancer-free

Unfettered

Past experiences
Past pains
Past fears
Past chains
Surrounding
My view of
My physical self
Faced
And cut loose

Unfettered

The breadth
And depth
Of this new
Freedom
Has permeated
My post-cancer
Body
And soul

Finally
Unfettered

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