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Swimming As Self-Care: Getting Moving Again After Breast Cancer

Self-care is so important when you have had cancer. It’s a critical time not just to love and pamper your body, which has been through a lot, but to create a new normal for yourself. For me, self-care took the form of finally moving again. 

In my pre-cancer life, I used to take rigorous, twice-a-week bootcamp classes, and during the rest of the week, I’d work out in the gym on machines, run, and swim laps in the local pool. But I have to admit, exercise was sometimes more of a chore than something I truly enjoyed. It was something I knew I “should” do to stay in shape, but I wouldn’t say I really loved it. 

After cancer, exercise took on new meaning for me. 

Working out became something life-affirming that I knew would help me stay healthy, and as I healed, I marveled that my body—which at times I felt had let me down—could be capable of so much.

Initially, I didn’t know if I’d ever move the same way again after my surgery. I wanted to return to my usual routine, but I was afraid of hurting myself. I didn’t want to make any sudden movements for fear that I would burst my stitches, and I was worried about developing lymphedema, a swelling of the arm that’s common after lymph node removal. 

But I also wasn’t used to sitting around being sedentary, so I decided to slowly regain control of my body through exercise. I knew that if I did it right, it would not only be safe, but beneficial to my recovery, long-term survival odds, and sound mind. Many people don’t exercise after diagnosis, even though studies show it can help those recovering from breast cancer especially. I didn’t want that to be me.

So, I headed to my local JCC for a free Moving For Life dance/exercise class, where gentle movement aimed at survivors got me back on the proverbial horse. Then I went back into the water—not to do laps as usual, but into a therapeutic pool where the warm water welcomed my healing body. 

I began looking forward to the weekly water Ai Chi classes.

These classes focused on easy movements designed for folks like me, who were recovering post-surgery. I had never heard of it, but Ai Chi is an aquatic therapy, total body relaxation, and strengthening technique developed in Japan. It uses slow, graceful movements coordinated with deep breathing, similar to Tai Chi. It creates improved range of motion and mobility, and involves the process of learning to let go of tension and worries. Perfect for a cancer survivor.

With the practice of Ai Chi, you can reach a state of relaxation, similar to that of deep meditation. Moving while half-submerged in water also improves blood circulation and corrects posture, lessening the impact on muscles, joints, and sore spots. I know I kind of sound like an ad for Ai Chi right now, and frankly, that’s fine by me—it was that transformative.

There, in the soothing water, I opened my arms, my mind, and my heart. I felt the pressures, concerns, and daily decisions that were bearing down on me release into the water as I glided along. Restorative energy flooded my senses. Each class left me feeling calm, relaxed, and in control. 

Before long, I was back in the swing of things. As I healed, I returned to lap swimming and weight lifting. But I kept going back to those water classes, mostly for the support and camaraderie, as essential to recovery as the movements themselves. It was great to be surrounded by others who had been there and done that—community is also so important for mental health.

Before and after class, we compared notes on doctors, medications, side effects, and what swimsuits worked best for breast cancer patients. We shared our fears and celebrated our milestones. One weekend, some of us even attended a touching memorial for a classmate who didn’t make it. We became more than water buddies or classmates. These were my BFFs (Breast Friends Forever).

There are many lessons I learned on my cancer journey, but chief among them is how important it is to show yourself some love, to find support, and most of all, to just keep moving forward.

Bethany Kandel is a New York city journalist and almost 14-year breast cancer survivor. She created breastcancerfreebies.com to help those diagnosed with breast cancer find free wigs, hats, retreats, make-overs, support groups, and much more. 

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