Alongside the practice of mindfulness described in my last post, I also coped with my prolonged treatment for acute myeloid leukemia by doing as much physical activity as possible.
My induction chemotherapy and initial recovery occurred during a 37-day hospital stay. I arrived with no debilitating symptoms, so I was restless right from the start. I began doing some isometric exercises and stretching to go along with my evening yoga. My routine was enriched when physical therapists gave me additional exercises and some resistance bands to tone various muscle groups.
But my most valued activity was walking the halls. I walked in the late morning, late afternoon, and before bedtime, pulling my IV pole alongside like a faithful companion. I followed a serpentine path down the main hallway and every side corridor, repeating it three times on each outing. They tell me I was walking about five miles a day, which is ironically more than I ever walked in my pre-cancer days.
When I was feeling adventurous, I would hop on the elevator and go down to the main floor and mingle with the civilians. I would also go out a side door to visit a garden area and feel the sun on my face. And sometimes I would march out the front door to drop a utility bill in the mailbox. I was once playfully warned by a nurse that if I had taken one step further, it would have triggered a “code white,” meaning a runaway patient. But like a dog respecting an invisible fence, I never strayed beyond my permitted perimeter.
It felt great to move, but my walking also brought an unexpected benefit. On my strolls, I would encounter nurses and staff all along the way. They would often greet me, and we would chat for a minute if time allowed. It gradually dawned on me that this was the most rewarding part of my walking routine: that I was seen, recognized, and acknowledged as a person and not just a patient.
When I moved to my transplant hospital for a 25-day stay, I was confined to my room for the duration to minimize the risk of infection during the transplant process. I did get a treadmill in my room as a poor substitute for my prior hall walking, but it never could match the social benefits I previously enjoyed roaming the halls.
Standard disclaimer: I have no idea if my physical activity had any direct bearing on my successful treatment outcome, but it sure maintained my spirits during a difficult time.
Steve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor. In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness. His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing.