For All My Fitness Instructors, Past and Present

I was a workout fiend long before being diagnosed with colon cancer. I worked out hard four to five times a week, almost always shunning slower and more contemplative classes like yoga and Pilates for the hard core stuff, the stuff that would get my heart rate up to 90% of my maximum target heart rate and make me want to vomit from the exertion — studio cycling, rope jumping, boot camp, rowing. As a busy working mom, I didn’t have much time for the gym and so whatever time I could spare for the gym could not be wasted with anything that didn’t push my body to its limits. The gym has been a part of my life since my college days, except back then gym time was intended to satisfy my PE requirement to graduate. Over the years my reasons for exercising expanded. Obviously, I wanted to look good. And obviously, I had some vague notion that working out would be good for my health in reducing the risk of things like heart disease and other ailments that seemed like they were years in the future. My frequent solo travels to remote parts of the world demanded a certain amount of self-sufficiency (e.g., carrying 30 pounds on my back), thus giving me another good reason to frequent the gym. When I developed gestational diabetes, I learned that exercise was said to help control blood sugars. When I had one child and then two children, I realized that taking care of kids in the City requires a LOT of strength and stamina. Hauling two children weighing a total of 60 pounds, one on my back and one in front, up and down subway stairs couldn’t always be avoided and I was ever so grateful then for those innumerable hours I had put into the gym. Of course, I didn’t see before my diagnosis the best reason of all for so crazily working out — preparing my mind and body to fight cancer. 

I don’t waste time trying to figure out what caused my cancer — whether it was all the pork I ate growing up in a pork-loving Chinese household or the polluted air I breathed while living in Beijing for 6 months in 1996. The questions about the non-genetic and no doubt multiple and complex causes of cancer have stumped the most brilliant minds of past and present generations, and I don’t pretend to even begin to have a clue as to what caused my colon cancer. I do know one thing though and that is that I developed cancer despite living a fairly healthy lifestyle. In addition to working out almost maniacally, I cooked healthy meals for my family and rarely ate red meat. Our fridge was always stocked with fruits and vegetables. Gestational diabetes with both pregnancies had made me vigilant about consuming the right amounts and types of carbohydrates. I never consumed alcohol (thanks to my body’s inability to process alcohol as is so common among Asians), much less abused any drugs nor have I ever smoked even one cigarette. I never even drank coffee. As Josh said, with the exception of an occasional indulgence to satisfy my sweet tooth, I was as vice-free as anybody could be. And yet, ultimately, none of it — not the working out, not the healthy eating and the not drinking — none of it made a damn bit of difference in shielding me from the undiscriminating reaches of cancer. Indeed, many people live much unhealthier lifestyles than I do and for longer periods of times and somehow cancer never finds them, and certainly doesn’t find them at the young age of 37.

Even though healthy living didn’t prevent cancer from growing in me, I can say that it frees me of guilt. I can’t blame myself for getting cancer. I can’t say if I’d only eaten more vegetables or worked out more, then my daughters wouldn’t be facing a life without their mother.

But more importantly, healthy living, especially my devotion to exercise, to consistently pushing my body beyond the point of comfortable and further, primed me for this war in a way that I never once envisioned all those millions of times I stepped into the world class chi-chi Equinox Fitness Clubs with its beautiful people Back then, I mostly cared about losing those extra five or ten pounds and getting rid of the baby weight. Back then, I got profound satisfaction out of building definition in my triceps and abs so I looked good in a sleeveless dress, just in time for the midriff baring season of summer. Back then, working out was about reaching certain numerical goals, whether it was heart beats per minute or body mass index. Today, working out is about fighting for my life.

I received Round 3 of 12 of Chemo on Monday and left the cancer center with a pump that infused more drugs for 48 more hours. I didn’t unhook the pump until late Wednesday afternoon, at which point I was really feeling the ravages of this round. Fatigue, no doubt resulting from the death of many red blood cells killed by the chemo drugs, hit me like a ton of bricks. I slept ten hours Wednesday night and then another ten hours Thursday night. I can’t remember the last time I slept ten hours, maybe not since I was ten years old. I pushed myself to get up to take my daughters to school. Despite the numbness and tingling in my hands and feet (another side effect of chemo), I pushed myself to get to the gym on Thursday and Friday. I pushed myself to meet a friend for lunch. I pushed and pushed and pushed, only allowing myself to rest in the evenings when someone was here to help with my girls. Take it easy and rest, many would have told me. My response: I’ll never get stronger if I don’t fight through the fatigue so push I must.

It’s a mindset I’ve nurtured through the many fitness classes I’ve taken. The best instructors always demanded more and more, screaming things like: “How are you going to see any change if you don’t push yourself!” “Imagine your goal and go for it! Go! Go! Go!” “Don’t be a wuss! Fight for it!” “You got this!” “All the way down! Don’t cheat!” “Keep going!” “You are stronger than you know!” Before my diagnosis, every workout and those words were about overcoming an imagined obstacle, a self-imposed objective, which was certainly valuable in itself but really of limited importance. But now, every workout and those words carry so much more weight, for they are about overcoming an actual life-threatening challenge. Now, my goal is fighting through the overwhelming fatigue and nausea brought on by chemo; my goal is defeating the cancer. I fight for my life, my children and my husband. I got this because I have no choice.

Even when I’m not working out, when I’m too tired to keep my eyes open, I remember the instructors’ words. I let them remind me of the power and strength I feel while working out. I let them remind me of the images of running over cancer cells with my imaginary bike, of strangling cancer cells with my bare hands and of deflecting like Superman the barrage of cancer cells coming at me in a reign of gunfire. And perhaps most importantly, I let the words remind me of the profound gratitude I so often feel at each and every workout now. Even as my legs jump, my weighted arms reach for the sky and my breath comes fast and furious, I feel gratitude for this body that despite the abuses of age, cancer, surgery, chemo and life in general, still fights and moves with power, grace and beauty. I feel gratitude for the very breath that gives my muscles, body and spirit life and purpose. I feel gratitude for all that I have, including the incredible army of supporters that is standing beside me as I fight this war.

In the vain of gratitude, I must express my deepest appreciation for all the instructors who have yelled and pushed and who continue to yell and push. I made a commitment once I was diagnosed with cancer that I would always tell people if they had brought something positive into my life. So I’m now telling all you instructors who I couldn’t all name, thank you for arming me in this war. Thank you for inspiring me to push myself to be stronger than I thought possible. And know that what you do matters, not just in some general sense of helping people lose weight for the obvious healthy benefits, but as in my case, giving people the tools to fight a life-threatening disease or some other daunting challenge. That is priceless. Thank you.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tyler
    Sep 14, 2013 @ 12:03:46

    Hi Julie, I really think that the imagery works. I had serious neurological Lyme disease for a year before I was properly diagnosed and embarked on three months of treatment. During my treatment I used the best that western and eastern medicine had to offer. I would imagine the Lyme being pushed out of me during therapeutic massage. I had it leave my body during acupuncture and I empowered the drugs I took to chase down the bacteria and kill it in the deepest part of my body. I used western medicine to kill the Lyme and eastern medicine to “take out the trash”. Three down nine to go!


  2. Downey
    Sep 18, 2013 @ 23:47:56

    Keep it up!


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