Sharon Klahr Coey talks us through her inspiring journey recovering from cancer, how spinning helped her rediscover her love for exercise and made her feel whole again.
I am far from broken, but as the years go by there are things that have changed my perception of myself and how I feel – age, parenthood, illness. After breast cancer and the changes that has wrought to my body and psyche, I’ve found a good spin class can actually make me feel fun, young and whole again.
Find the thing that makes you feel like you. No matter what it is – exercise, clothes, time with friends – whatever takes you back to a time that you felt like ‘you’; not necessarily better or worse – just ‘you’.
With my body stretched low over the handlebars (but always head up, it increases oxygen intake) and my spine straight all the way back to my Lycra-clad butt, legs pushing the pedals at breakneck speed; I could be back in New York City circa 1998. I feel like I’m in my twenties, young and healthy. We are all equal in the dark studio - no one pays attention to the compression sleeve on my left arm, the scar at the top of my chest, or the pounds that have crept on over the last few years. Norman, our instructor, will either yell at or praise any one of us at any time - young or old, thin or not (it doesn’t matter who you are, turn that resistance up).
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It’s these 45 sweaty minutes each week that I actually feel like me. The me that used to be, the me who had never suffered through breast cancer, surgery, chemo and radiation. The me who was young and vibrant – not steadily encroaching on 50.
Back in my late twenties and early thirties I was a typical New York City gym bunny working out five days a week in just a sports bra and tight shorts. I took a broad mix of classes, from the typical (step, aerobics, spin, yoga) to the specialised (capoeira, stripper workouts); whatever was on offer, I was in.
I even started working as a writer and editor in the marketing department of my gym. It was win-win – writing about something I was interested in, while being able to slip out at lunch time with my boss to take a boxing class. Plus, I got a free gym membership – score!
Every Friday evening after work my best friend and I would take the 6 train up to a spin class on the Upper East Side. It was a great class on its own, but what made it special was that somehow it became tradition that Sheryl Crow’s If It Makes You Happy would be the last song and everyone would sing along at the top of their lungs. It was more than a class, I felt alive and connected to my fellow spinners/singers – it was a fantastic way to end the week and begin the weekend.
Eventually, I moved to London, but I didn’t get the same vibes in the spin classes; it was a lot more cheesy 80s music and less whooping and hollering and spinning solidarity, so I stopped going.
I got married and had a baby; my fitness regime went from three-or-four times a week gym visits to running after a child. I fell out of habit. Once my daughter was in school, I dabbled with the occasional run home and trip to the gym, but my workout mojo was gone. My fitness died in my early forties.
Then on Tuesday 28 June 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer was cut out from the top of my chest along with all my lymph nodes under my arm on my left side, so I am alive, cancer free and well – no complaints there.
During chemo my oncologist said it’s a misconception that you should take it easy during treatment. In actuality, the only thing that will keep you feeling good is exercise.
It’s great in theory, but I didn’t take him up on it. I was busy enough managing the myriad of doctor and hospital appointments, school drop-offs and pick-ups, dog walks, and daily mum, wife and work tasks. Plus, I was bald. Just hauling my out-of-shape self to the gym was hard enough; I couldn’t contend with the wig.
About a year after I finished all my treatments, when I was feeling better and had a covering of hair, I decided it was time to get serious about getting fit again. I was low on energy and high in fat. My tamoxifen (standard breast cancer follow-on medicine) was totally messing with my metabolism and weight. In addition to normal ageing, I was struggling against a drug that’s one job was to remove my oestrogen and age me 10 years – in order to prevent the cancer from coming back. So, while I won’t stop taking it, I’m not going to let it flab me up without a fight. Besides, every single post-cancer group meeting I attended stressed that the best way to avoid recurrence was to exercise. If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is. Sure, I want to fit into my 28-inch jeans, but I really, really want to avoid cancer again.
I started slow. After all, even without the cancer, I’d pretty much cut my fitness back to the bare minimum of school drop-offs and dog walks. While spin may not seem the obvious choice for starting slow, I had my reasons: one, I was familiar with the format having been a big spinner in the past, I mean how much could it have changed in the last decade – it’s a bike bolted to the floor. Two, the manager of the gym was the instructor and I felt very comfortable with him as he knew my background – including why I wore the compression sleeve (lymphedema, a common side effect with lymph node removal. Your arm swells, and doesn’t fully go back down, the sleeve is there to help keep the fluids moving away from the area). Three, while spin is high energy, you can slip into the back and control your resistance.
I did just that, I sat in the last row, hiding in the dark, scared to turn my dial up all the way. Would it be too much? Would I feel ill, or like I was having a heart attack? Or would I actually have a heart attack? Fun fact: cancer treatments are really bad for your heart.
While there was no group singing, there were flashing multi-coloured lights and loud music and it was easy to immerse myself in the vibe. And that, for me, is key. If I’m not having a great time and losing myself in the music and the energy, the spirit of a class, then I’m obsessively watching the clock.
And none of the bad stuff I feared happened. In fact, after the class was over, I felt fantastic and proud. There are things about my health I can’t control, but there are things I can. And I did it! Screw you, cancer! And you too, tamoxifen! (Actually no, thank you tamoxifen for all you do.)
I never thought Jessie J would be the sound of my saviour. I went back the next week and turned the resistance up. I wanted to see if I could keep going and build up my fitness despite everything. From the opening clicks of Wild, our warm up track, my heart started to pound. I loved the blaring, pounding music and the feeling of achievement. I’ve come back from cancer and sloth and survived the class. Plus, I had a nice little endorphin rush… so I kept at it.
In addition to the camaraderie (and yes, now there is whooping and hollering), what’s great about a spin class, as opposed to just slogging away on a bike, are all the different moves to keep you “busy”. My instructor has us use light weights during one or two of the songs, and while it took me a year to add them (I was afraid it would be too much for the lymphedema), I finally did. And you know what, I actually I find the more activity I do, the more the swelling goes down. I love the “forward, back, up, down” moves – pushing your body low over the front of the bike, then shifting it all back, then you stand up, then you sit down. Repeat (a lot). I find myself both counting and singing along to Waiting All Night by Rudimental in my head (okay, fine a little out loud, but no one can hear).
Part of the reason I think spin is so great for me emotionally is the way the class is set up. The only mirror is on the right side of the room and I can’t really see it, especially when the lights are off, so my focus is on what I’m doing and not how I look doing it or how anyone else is doing it. It’s funny, when you’re looking straight ahead and not staring and scrutinising your physical body, you see yourself as how you perceive yourself to be and that may mean feeling decades younger. And at the core, that’s who we are really. Sure, there are wrinkles and kilos and things we don’t love about our outside, but that’s not who we are. You need to find what makes you feel most like you. For me, it’s spin.
Every time my instructor gives me a shout out for working hard and walks by my bike and doesn’t crank up my resistance knob, I know I’m doing the best I can. I feel more powerful every class, and each week I push myself more. I no longer worry about my heart, I know I’m making it stronger and healthier. I’m also feeling and looking fitter; I can see that change in my body – I’ve hauled out the miniskirts and wrap dresses from the back of the cupboard and feel pretty good in them.
I’ve now been going consistently for nearly three years. I even have a proper ponytail now!
In the dark spin class, it’s just the bike, the music and me.
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