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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Developing a stronger mind, body and soul for facing my worst enemy: breast cancer

By Kelly Motley

I was feeling stuck in my life, despite having a successful PR business and a wonderful family. One day I just wanted to hit something (we’ve all been there) so I did—I found a boxing class. I loved boxing so much that I hired a top-ranked professional super middleweight boxer, Sena Agbeko, and an Olympic boxing coach, Christy Halbert.

I learned one of boxing’s most important principles while shadowboxing in the ring: Focus on you. You know your power. My coach talked to me about how vulnerability can be an asset. “Allow yourself to be vulnerable to create openings. You create the openings and opportunities, be willing to throw a punch, be vulnerable, act first—then when you do, effective things happen in the ring, then the opening to the body is available,” my coach told me.

In the ring, my coach would say, “Sometimes a threat is disguised as an opportunity.” Shadowboxing allowed me to step out of my routine of self-judgment and self-editing to think about taking risks and creating my own experience. The principles I learned about boxing became lifesavers when I faced my most difficult fight: breast cancer.

I was scheduled for a mammogram in late spring 2018. I was reluctant to go. I had disregarded the boob-flattening screening procedure as unnecessary and ridiculous, especially considering how healthy I was from training, Jeet-Kune-Do and boxing.

I received a come-back-in phone call for more images, but dismissed the follow-up as just part of the healthcare system. Frustrated by the inconvenient disruption, I became even more confident that this was all a big misunderstanding, as if I had walked into the wrong party or had been placed in a high-level math class. Someone, somewhere in the healthcare ecosystem had made a big mistake. Perhaps it was in the testing process. Or maybe someone was overreacting. Being skeptical, I thought I had been randomly singled out.

Motionless and sitting knee-to-knee with a radiologist afterwards, I calmly absorbed the strange words about finding tiny deposits of calcium that sometimes indicate the presence of breast cancer. She referred to them as microcalcifications.

A month later, I ended up getting the recommended breast biopsy. I was at the mercy of two indifferent technicians who didn’t click, and both were enamored with their cell phones.

After the breast biopsy, I couldn’t stop the unwanted calls from my doctor saying, “We need to talk…” that went to voicemail. I was annoyed by her insistent urgency. I rationalized that if I didn’t call her back, she’d pursue another patient and this just all would go away. Surely, she could see the timing for this wasn’t going to work for me.

Eventually, I found myself on the phone, faced with what felt like the worst chaos imaginable. I was sweating because of the fast-talking doctor’s stream of foreign medical terms: “Biopsy path report: An early stage breast cancer that is triple positive. Breast cancer coming from the ducts of the breast, 1.4 cm, HER2neu positive. To treat cancer—surgery, chemo, plus or minus radiation; hormone blocking pills for the next five years. Surgery comes first. Lumpectomy removes that area. Spend the night in hospital and then remove cancer. Tissue expanders. Lymphoid testing during the surgery. Chemo—a lighter version with hair loss.”

Reviewing the terrifying information on my computer screen, I couldn’t realize my own story presented there. None of this was plausible. I had been riding the crest of growing my business, and physically I was the strongest I had been in my life, feeling my personal power in a new way.

Walking into the cancer surgeon’s waiting room with my husband John a week later, I awkwardly and passively averted eye contact with bald women brushing past me, as if by looking into their eyes I’d be desperately locked together with them. We were led into an awkward, jam-packed room with an examination table and only two chairs.

I received what felt like a mechanical recitation from my doctor: the delivery of bad news, straightforward with the word “cancer”; then some foreign medical terms, the need for surgeries, a port and 12 chemo treatments.

Her precise words around the effects of chemo sounded strangely like she was singing a lyrical song, my own private version, similar to Johnny Cash’s rendition of I’ve Been Everywhere. “Persistent symptoms or treatment effects of chemo include the following: hot flashes, muscle aches, blood clots, uterine cancer, cataracts, hair loss, weight gain, nerve pain, scar tissue, decreased shoulder range of motion, chronic pain, lymphedema, neuropathy, low blood counts, decreased heart function, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, secondary malignancy, premature menopause and infertility. Chemo would damage healthy cells, causing loss of memory and cognitive abilities, my hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows. I might expect tooth decay and gum issues, mouth sores, a craving for comfort foods, nausea, constipation, and fatigue most of the time, with potential damage to kidneys, heart, liver, and lungs…” and I will have been everywhere, man.

Two days before I was to start chemo, while preparing myself for what I thought would be the worst, I was blindsided. I was at my computer, right in the middle of work. The afternoon phone call came out of the blue, at a tongue-twisting speed, with sing-song urgency.

It was my oncologist, and apparently, she was busy. I worked to decipher why she was calling me. She had already put the breast cancer plan in place. As I understood things, she was supposed to be my starting quarterback with all the cancer treatment plans in place, including scheduled surgery dates, a port in my chest, and the exact timing of 12 chemo treatments once a week. She’d string words together like: “We didn’t get approval from your insurance company for the recommended treatment, and we need to proceed with more aggressive drugs three times as long, with more harmful and stronger side effects.”

My voice buckled as I broke the news to John in consonants and vowels, trying to form words that sounded primitive. He got on the phone immediately with our insurance company and by the end of the day, he and I had coordinated a conference call with the oncologist’s office administrator and an insurance representative.The insurance company communicated that all would be good and the oncologist’s original treatment plan would be approved. Kelly would win this battle.

The link between boxing and my mind and body empowered me to shift my mindset and completely alter my cancer experience. Instead of catastrophic thinking, I started viewing cancer and chemo as manageable and achievable and acknowledging my body as capable and resilient.

I found an unconventional approach to healing by finding a pre-fight boxing training plan, to minimize the side effects of chemo, with an intent to keep a healthier body and to manage the powerlessness and fear of a cancer diagnosis. I had intense training for two months before starting chemotherapy, and continued training during chemo. I had 11 rounds of chemotherapy, including Herceptin and Taxol.

In addition to conventional cancer treatment, I found an unconventional way of managing the powerlessness and fear through a diet and lifestyle prescribed by Virginia Harper, an authority on healing the body through macrobiotic food.

Right away I had to strengthen my immune system, increase iron intake, support my digestion and inflammatory markers with a goal to alkalize my blood, calm my nervous system and increase my Yang energy to balance estrogen and progesterone. A macrobiotic diet is a strict diet that aims to reduce toxins. It involves eating whole grains and vegetables and avoiding foods high in fat, salt, sugar, and artificial ingredients.

Meat, sugar, poultry, dairy, caffeine, alcohol, eggs, bread, and carbonated beverages would go away. Raw vegetables were forbidden, along with tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. I was to avoid vegetable juices, alcohol, sparkling mineral waters, cold drinks, and sugared or stimulant beverages.

I would cook only with gas and use pots and pans made of stainless steel, ceramic, or cast iron. All my new meals were prepared via boiling, steaming, or sautéeing with oil. I trained myself to learn a new way of slicing, moving away from the old haphazard way of chopping vegetables.

I’d need to incorporate new behaviors around chewing my food slowly and telling myself repeatedly that my body is in the healing space, while thinking about and visualizing how each bite would heal me. I would take so many supplements that I felt like a pharmacist.

It was through boxing and this macrobiotic diet that my soul was in perfect order right before my first big surgery: a double mastectomy. My thoughts were not scattered, and I was not startled by what I was getting ready to go through.

Anchored by my pre-fight strategy, I started seeing myself in a state of progress rather than as a mess. It felt as if I’d done something miraculous. I was no longer crawling, operating from a place of fear and allowing it to direct my decisions, as I had before my surgeries and chemo. While studying my form in the mirror and jumping rope, I realized my training had toughened me up, my body was stronger than ever, and mentally, I had my approach in place. After jumping rope for 10 minutes straight without tripping once, the reality set in—I’d come a long way. I was pleasantly surprised that all the good stuff I had been doing for myself to get through the anguish of the past two months had paid off.

In the two months between my diagnosis and my double mastectomy, I was in a boxer’s meditative training state as it related to my workout and the trauma my body was about to endure. Frozen in this moment, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle found their correct positions. I had found peace and contentment. I knew I was ready to be in the ring. My eyes and body adjusted to something better. My body showed that it would not betray me. I had abandoned my established ways of being. Getting my body clean would be perfectly timed with surgery and chemo.

I ended up with a Strep B infection in my port. There was a sudden reversal of course, minutes before what was to be my double mastectomy surgery. Calmly, sweetly standing over me, my plastic surgeon raised a red flag, sharing the news that there would be no surgery today. My white blood cell count was elevated from its usual three to 17. My body was fighting an infection.

After eventually proceeding with my mastectomy, I had my final breast reconstruction surgery (fat grafting) in December 2019. Since then, my hair has grown back to its original length but in spiral curls that I never had before. I’m still strength training and practicing Jeet Kune Do with my coach, Richard. I’ve taken up dance again after 30 years, and also weight lifting inspired by my son, Alex.

I am a survivor, one whose arms were held overhead alongside countless other survivors and others impacted by cancer; one who knows I can tackle the worst and still rise victorious, waiting for the victory bell inside the boxing ring of my journey.

After being hit so hard, I had to pick myself back up and avoid the dreaded 10 count. I needed healing, I needed to get back in the ring and show life that I was not done, not knocked out in the final round like so many before me.

Cancer is a formidable adversary. You never really win against cancer. You hope for a draw, to fight another time, to train and battle and be ready, if you have to return to the ring again. You are ready.

Boxing has taught me discipline, greater awareness and an approach to life that requires a commitment to process. It demands mental, physical and spiritual fitness. It is grueling and exhausting, but it ultimately prepares you for the fight for your life.

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Thank you for sharing your story, Kelly. SBC loves you!

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