In this week’s Sunflower Wellness class I started sharing my personal cancer chronology from the beginning, with the story of meeting Andrea Martin. It was 1984, and I had never met anyone with cancer before then. I was finishing my studies at the Marin Ballet School while working as a fitness trainer, a fairly green trainer, in Sausalito. All new members of the Nautilus of Marin received a complimentary, introductory private training session; and Andrea was assigned to me. She was surprisingly cheerful as she told me that she’d just had her second mastectomy and had just founded The Breast Cancer Fund. She was planning to lead a group of fellow cancer survivors on a mountain climbing expedition, “Michael, I need strong legs, lots of stamina, and the ability to carry a heavy backpack despite the damage that my surgeries have done to my pectoral muscles.”
How do you find the courage to go beyond what you think you can do?
The exercise program I designed for Andrea worked beautifully. She had a successful climb, and from time to time hired me for additional private training. Then my professional ballet career took me away to distant places. I thought that I wouldn’t see Andrea again. How wrong I was. That initial collaboration was only the beginning.
None of this week’s class participants chimed in with their own stories; but the subsequent conversation flowed easy. I think the difference between this session and my awkward share the prior week, was the slow pace I employed to tell the story, and the peaceful affection for Andrea that the class participants could hear in my voice.
How do you think I should progress the class interaction?
The greatest challenge of my work week is leading the Sunflower Wellness class for cancer patients. Yes, the demand for modifications in order to accommodate one participant’s orthopedic concerns after another is constant; but that part is easy. I am a font of exercise repertoire. It’s the support-group part, conducting a conversation about mortality and the emotional and philosophical repercussions of cancer that shakes my confidence.
How does one introduce death into a conversation as if it were a routine topic, and sustain the sense of safety, even levity, in the room?
This Friday, as I unrolled my yoga mat, I told the class that I’d inherited the mat from my friend James Hutton. He died of same the disease that I have — prostate cancer. Jimmy was instrumental at a time when I had to come to terms with my own diagnosis. He took me to Commonweal, a retreat center on the northern California coast, where I made my decision about my primary treatment. Later, as his health declined, he purchased a handful of small apparatus, including that mat, so that I could train him on the deck of his studio apartment. Now the mat, medicine ball, elastic tubing, and pushup grips have returned to me.
I don’t think it is appropriate for me to ask class participants to tell their cancer narratives; but I hope that by sharing mine, my fellow patients will experience the strength of our commonality.
My story about Jimmy fell into an uncomfortable silence. I didn’t have a segue prepared to take the group into a period of intimate sharing. Perhaps the participants aren’t seeking the kind of support to which I aspire. I know only that, for me, it is the most important element of the class and the reason that I’m there. I am most certainly on my edge, at the outer reaches of my abilities, where growth occurs.
Have you any suggestions?