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Swimming Through Breast Cancer

by Liz Pittinger

In a few days, I will participate in my first swim meet, ever! No, I’m not 11-years-old like my competitive-swimmer daughter. I am a 39 years old stay-at-home mom who is a breast cancer survivor.

“You have cancer” are words no one is prepared to hear from her doctor. Last year those words were delivered to me. I had had friends diagnosed with cancer; my own mother was in the middle of her battle with the disease-- but me? How could I have cancer so young?

I remember thinking, “Well the joke is on cancer! I’m super-strong!” I was averaging 4200 meters a day with the Masters swim team and lifting weights three days a week. I was the healthiest and strongest I had ever been in my entire life. Beating cancer was the only option; beating it into the ground was my goal. What I hadn’t counted on was how my workouts would be affected during the next 12 months and beyond.

Becoming a swimmer

First, let me explain how I became a member of the Coral Springs Masters Swim Team in Florida (FL GOLD). I was enjoying taking my little girls to the Swim America program at our local pool, headed by Olympian Biggi Lohberg. Twice a week I would watch my daughters learn different strokes and laugh all the way through practice. At the “big pool” behind me, however, were the teenage Nationals swimmers coached by Biggiʼs husband, Michael Lohberg, and Masters coach Chris Jackson. I remember watching the kids swimming and wishing I could have my “ballet legs” back. Needless to say, I hadn’t danced in years!

The following day I went to the office and asked the kind lady behind the desk if there was a way I could sign up for swim lessons. She helped me pay and gave me the email address of the coach who would work with me. Great! I admit, I was a little disgruntled that I had been handed off to a male coach. I have always been reserved and wearing a swimsuit in front of a guy was not my idea of a good time. I wasn’t overweight, having always led an active life, but I wasn’t toned either. After being told there were no female coaches available, I shrugged and scheduled my first class.

I showed up for my first lesson later that week with the attitude that I was going to be the best student ever. My coach just happened to be the Masters coach, Chris … you know, the one who works with all the beautiful Olympic and Nationals swimmers too. Great. Still ready to impress, I jumped in the water and prepared to swim a quick 50 so he could evaluate what needed work.

I should probably mention that I never, NEVER, had swim lessons! So, with my best “ballet arms” I swam a 50, only to emerge to see my coach laughing so hard that he was falling out of his chair. “Oh good God! Am I really THAT bad?” And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I continued to take lessons once a week and practice on my own another three or four days each week. Amazingly, somtimes in the lane next to me was Dara Torres. I just kept my head down, in what I hoped was perfect alignment, and I consistently became stronger, faster, and more efficient. The changes in my body were almost immediate. By the time summer arrived, my coach convinced me to join the Masters team and swim at 6 a.m. I knew I could do it, but I was so intimidated to join a group of what I refer to as “the beautiful people,” some of the best swimmers in the world.

Still, I showed up. Granted, I swam on the periphery. After all, some of these folks have been swimming for decades, competed in the Olympics, and in a word are amazing. But what I also discovered is that swimmers by nature are very encouraging of one another. There were seniors who swam to stay in shape, there was a man who had lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, and together everyone helped each other out. This was a down-to-earth, positive group of friends who encouraged each other to push their boundaries. And our coach has the kindness to treat us all with the same level of respect, and the ruthlessness to push us beyond our comfort zones.

This was a group I was happy to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to be a part of. Overnight, my workouts went from 2600 meters to 4000. I still remember doing the math to add it all up. I was euphoric. The “swimmers high” I reached that day lasted through the evening. I certainly never got that from running, and I had no joint pains either. I was hooked—and swam almost every day that summer.

Cancer

By the end of the summer, school was ready to start. My Masters coach had agreed to create another Masters group during the school day. I had begged and begged for weeks, cajoling the director of the pool to give us another time during the day as well. They both relented and I was ecstatic to be able to continue my Masters workouts during the school year. Now I would be able to get my kids ready for school and workout during the day with a great group of people.

What nobody knew was that over the summer I had been having a series of tests to determine if the spot the doctors were seeing on my mammogram were “false positives” or not. By the first day of school, my surgeon finally had the answer, “You have stage I breast cancer.” I honestly think he was more surprised than I was. No one in the medical field seemed prepared that a 38-year-old woman would actually have this insidious disease. Apparently, I’m rare.

So much for the daytime Masters team. I had not swum for three weeks after the lumpectomy and now I was being rushed in for the lymph node biopsy. They actually had to cut through the muscle in my underarm to reach the nodes. Three weeks after that, however, and I was back in the pool. I needed to move my body, needed a swimmer’s high, needed to work out my fear of starting chemo the following week.

The pain from moving my left arm for the freestyle was excruciating. I didn’t have complete range of motion either and it was very stiff. I noticed the stiffness worked itself out the longer I swam so I grinned and bore the pain. I swam everyday that week and each day my arm motion became more fluid. The pain was terrible for the first 1000 meters or so, and then was tolerable. I dealt with it, because I was beginning to rely on those swimmer’s highs from the workouts again. I was strong already and swimming made me stronger. I needed this to prepare for what was to follow.

Then I started chemo. For the first three days I couldn’t get out of bed. The Neulasta shot created such pain that I cried. I remember thinking I had to be strong and not scare my kids … so I hid a lot of what I was feeling. But that would pass and then I would go back to the pool. And then I started losing my hair. Again, I would go to the pool just to keep my spirits up. No one seemed to notice I was bald as I wore a swim cap. I didn’t have the same energy, and really just moving my body was the goal. I didn’t even try to keep up with everyone. I did my own thing and after 30-45 minutes I would get dressed and sit on deck to watch the rest of the team. We laughed and cracked jokes. My team was giving me the relief from everything else that was going on, physically and mentally. My team, my friends, my family were keeping me positive and strong.

My workouts became non-existent. I got so that I would show up to sit while my team swam. We would joke and laugh and I would go home proud that I had gotten out of bed and driven somewhere, the goal for that day accomplished. Occasionally I would go to lift weights, 20 minutes or less, again just to get out of bed or the house. I was losing muscle, flexibility, and tone. The drugs were wreaking havoc on my body and energy. But I learned to just accept it and rely on my pool friends to keep me focused on the goal.

Radiation began after the holidays and many of my pool friends accompanied me to the daily sessions. Then I had more surgery. Finally by April I was ready to swim again and I had some hair on my head. I decided to go without a scarf and be with the people who had managed to keep me laughing and moving forward.

Return to Swimming

I showed up to swim after months away and I remember feeling embarrassed by the effect all the steroids had taken on my body. I looked horrible! Still, I jumped into the pool and started moving. It took 45 minutes for me to swim 600 meters. I got out of the pool and one of the new lifeguards commented on my leaving so soon. I shrugged and said it was a rough first day back. He smiled and added, “You know what? Everyone has to start somewhere.” He didn’t know me—didn’t know my story. And that one comment lightened my load and made me realize that I had surrounded myself with the most positive, encouraging group ever.

Returning was difficult. I listened to my coach give me different workouts from the rest of the group. I tried to stay positive and just focus on my situation without trying to prove anything to some of the newbies who didn’t know me. Mentally, it was so frustrating to have a fraction of the strength/stamina I had had the previous summer. But I learned to focus on the present. I worked hard and swam consistently. That was the key—consistency Each month I noticed that I was adding another 1000 meters to my workouts. By summer, I was swimming with the group and keeping up on most days, albeit with fins. I added weights to my routine and was noticing a return to my former body, more muscle tone and flexibility. Sometimes my own head got in my way. I certainly had down days where I thought I would cry watching everyone else complete the set that I was just too tired to try. But then my coach’s voice would ring in my ears, “Liz, you’re not trying out for the Olympics. Be kind to yourself.”

Several months later, my energy levels still fluctuate. Some days I am on fire, swimming 4000 meters or more and feeling strong. Other days I am happy to get in 2600. I smile when I complain about that, because I still think that’s awesome. And although the pain from my lymph node surgery is still there, it’s not nearly as debilitating as it once was. The more I use my arm, the better it feels.

No one can start at a level more elementary than I did—especially at a facility as intimidating as the Coral Springs Aquatic Center. But I grew into it—swimming is an art. It is constantly changing and it allows the swimmer to evolve with it.

So now, I am participating in my first swim meet this weekend. I bought a tech suit, with a pink stripe. I know I’m not going to set any records and may actually get a DQ on the 100IM, but I’m so excited that I’m about to burst. My focus is different now, more personal. This weekend I will hang out with my friends and try something new. And I know, no matter what my times are, I will have accomplished my goal … by jumping into the water, I am beating cancer into the ground.

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