Sometimes it takes life-shaking news to clarify our perspective on life. This was true for Heidi Gailey when on her 40th birthday, she received test results indicating breast cancer. This meant that the next six months would be filled with surgery, radiation, and chemo.
At that point in her life, fitness for health was always a part of Heidi’s busy world with a husband and four children. She had been a high school swim and dive athlete and had continued with running, hiking, and aerobics right up until her diagnosis in 2000.
Heidi started treatment immediately, and eight weeks after surgery she was back in the pool trying to regain strength in her arms. During radiation, walking was the only exercise her body would tolerate. She continued to take care of her busy family and manage her husband’s out of town travel, but it became overwhelming at times.
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Chemo caused weight gain, and this felt like a setback since all she could manage was walking. Heidi decided to put mind over matter, joined a gym, and worked with a personal trainer. Regardless, due to the drugs, the weight did not budge and fatigue was ever present.
A side effect of having estrogen receptor-positive cancer was early menopause at age 40, leaving her body and brain a mess. A physician helped to diagnose something similar to PTSD that many cancer patients experience. Finally, with corrective surgery and medication, Heidi was beginning to have hope.
“Through this experience, I have learned that our bodies are amazing gifts and that we should cherish every movement and every breath.”
Accepting the fact that she would not return to her precancer self, Heidi was ready to increase her activities and love her body for what it was. Heidi decided that cancer had ruled her life for eight years, and she was not going to let it continue. She set a birthday goal to be scuba-certified. As her family was living in Thailand at the time, it was a perfect setting to cherish life and embrace moments with her family.
This began a new birthday tradition every year: to choose a new, amazing experience or event to train for. Quite an admirable list has resulted:
- Hiked the entire 50-km Hong Kong Trail on her 50th birthday
- Climbed Mount Kinabalu in Borneo
- Ran her first half marathon
- Completed two Tough Mudder Races
- Hiked Lantau Trail in Hong Kong at night
- Took up Thai boxing
- Biked 75 km from Bangkok to Ayutthaya in Thailand
- Became certified as an advanced scuba diver with diving trips in Bali, Mexico, Malaysia, and Thailand
Heidi knew that the cancer had not only taken its toll on her body, but had messed with her mind as well. Daily walking became her way to clear her mind and refocus her efforts on healing from the inside out. This mindset was critical when she was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in 2016. Now, her mind and body were able to manage the physical shock and setback. Heidi was back walking within three weeks of her double mastectomy.
“Through this experience, I have learned that our bodies are amazing gifts and that we should cherish every movement and every breath,” Heidi reflected. “The thought of giving up would be like giving up on life, and I wasn’t and am not about to do that. Each birthday I have seems like a renewal of life, and I am going to seize the day!”
[Related: Motivation for Fitness After 50]
Hacks that work for Heidi:
- Set annual birthday goals.
- Eat lots of veggies and little to no processed foods.
- Put mind over matter when roadblocks arise.
- Take time to relax and take care of yourself.
Currently, Heidi takes spin and kickboxing classes at the local gym. She loves kayaking in the summer, as well as hiking and snowshoeing in the winter. She is choosing to live happily and healthily and to enjoy her family, which now includes grandchildren.
Apparently, Heidi has hit upon the secret of cherishing each moment even in the face of difficult odds. What roadblocks have you overcome, and what tools did you use to get past them?
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