Coming Back From Cancer: One Step at a Time

Patient Expert

We all face challenges in life. For cancer survivors, the ultimate challenge is life itself: first getting it back, then moving forward — one step at a time.

Sometimes, the first step is the hardest.

That’s what I said to encourage myself as I lay in the hospital bed, limp with fever. After five days of touch-and-go, my doctors trying one drug after another to stop the infection coursing through my chemo-ravaged body, I’d finally turned the corner. I was weak as water, but alive.

And now, I had to get out of bed and start walking again.

It was a few days before Christmas. My doctor said I could go home, but only if I could walk 10 laps around the nurses’ station without stopping. My head was ready; my legs, not so much. Tentatively, I lowered one foot to the floor, then the other…

…Untangled the oxygen tube snaking from my nose to the hissing, clanking tank I’d be dragging behind me…

…And stood up, ready to take that first step.

Sometimes, the first step is the scariest.

What if I couldn’t do it? I felt dizzy; would shuffling one foot across the floor send me tumbling? What if I couldn’t walk those 10 laps? What if I had to spend Christmas in the hospital? What if, what if, what if…

Sometimes, the first step is the most meaningful.

When you’re overtaken by the firestorm of cancer treatment, your body often trumps your mind. Willpower alone can’t summon even the strength you need to brush your teeth, let alone pursue your dream of running a road race again.

You have to take things one step at a time — literally.

I moved my right foot forward. Didn’t fall. Moved my left. Then my right again. Holding onto the oxygen tank for balance, I slowly made my way to the door and out into the hallway, moving toward the nurses’ station.

My head spun. My legs were lifeless after seven days in bed. But I was moving, even picking up speed. I reached the nurses’ station and started the first lap, counting my steps. One… two… three… four, five, six, seven —

Made it! Nine laps to go. And what seemed like an eon later, I finished, the nurses clapping and smiling as they witnessed my triumph.

I’d walked for 10 minutes. Not exactly a 5K pace, I thought to myself. Still, that simple stroll had been one of the hardest things I’d ever done.

Now, 16 years into survivorship, my knees and feet can no longer take the pounding inherent in regular jogging. I’ll never again run a road race, but six days a week, I walk an hour on the treadmill, alternating a fast walk with a slow jog. After that, I spend 90 minutes in the woods with my dogs, walking quickly or slowly as their pace dictates.

I’m not the person I once was; my body has never fully recovered. But in some ways, I’m better: mentally and emotionally stronger. Kinder and more patient. Quicker to forgive — both others and, just as important, myself.

The first step — well, I took it. And it brought me back to life.

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