WORK­ING IT OUT

Grief and ill­ness left writer Decca Aitken­head feel­ing like she was the liv­ing dead, but a phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion brought her back to life. And then some…

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - pho­tog­ra­phy IAN HAR­RI­SON

How writer Decca Aitken­head over­came grief and be­gan to re­build her life – and her body

Bad things al­ways come in threes, don’t they? In 2014, I stood on a beach with my young sons and watched their fa­ther drown. The fol­low­ing year, I was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer. Then last year, I watched an old friend fail to recog­nise me. Look­ing for a leggy blonde, she scanned the cafe but saw only a tired, puffy blob with a bru­tal crop. ‘Over here!’ I yelled. She gazed at me blankly, turned around and walked out.

Okay, in the grand scheme of things, that last one was rel­a­tively unim­por­tant. My chil­dren didn’t re­ally care what their mum looked like, as long as she was still around. The can­cer drugs had saved my life – what did it mat­ter if they’d left me un­fit and flabby?

SIZE MAT­TERS

But to me, it did – more than I liked to ad­mit. The ac­cepted eti­quette for breast can­cer sur­vivors, I’d learned from on­line chat rooms, was to trill, ‘Sure, I’ve gained 3st and lost my hair, but I’ve got my health and that’s all that mat­ters!’ I wished I could say the same. But I missed my old self and wanted her back.

I’d al­ways been fit and healthy, weigh­ing 10st, and had been warm­ing up for a yoga class the morn­ing my part­ner drowned. We were on hol­i­day in Ja­maica and our el­dest, then just four, was pad­dling at the wa­ter’s edge when a rip­tide pulled him out to sea. His dad raced to save him, I swam out to them and fought the cur­rent to bring our son back to shore. My part­ner didn’t make it. I flew home with two trau­ma­tised chil­dren and their fa­ther in a cof­fin, a widow at 43.

Overnight, I lost all in­ter­est in any­thing re­sem­bling an ac­tual meal and solved the agony of din­ner for one by adopt­ing a diet that con­sisted ex­clu­sively of milk choco­late and nico­tine. For a year, I barely left the house. So I was al­ready in poor shape – a stone over­weight and bor­der­line de­pressed – when doc­tors de­liv­ered the bomb­shell that I had breast can­cer.

I didn’t think I could look or feel any worse, but a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy and months of chemo­ther­apy left me doughy and limp, an­other stone heav­ier. And the post­treat­ment drug I’d have to take for the next 10 years made mat­ters worse. Tamox­ifen shuts down oe­stro­gen, cat­a­pult­ing you into the menopause and play­ing havoc with your me­tab­o­lism. Af­ter just nine months,

I’d gained an­other stone and couldn’t fit into a sin­gle item in my wardrobe.

Had this been the first time I’d ever been out of shape, I’d have been more alarmed. But dur­ing each of my preg­nan­cies I’d gained around 6st, and had found los­ing the weight post-birth a breeze. So I signed up to a gym, ex­pect­ing some work­outs to put mat­ters right. Three months later, I still hadn’t set foot in the place. I felt em­bar­rassed about be­ing the chubby novice ev­ery­one feels sorry for.

With my at­tempts at di­et­ing hav­ing made no im­pact what­so­ever, I was also be­gin­ning to panic that it might not even be pos­si­ble to get fit on Tamox­ifen. On­col­ogy nurses had warned me that los­ing weight on the drug was ‘a chal­lenge’, and more than one at­tempted to talk me out of even try­ing. Maybe they had a point. Per­haps the only re­al­is­tic choice was to con­cede de­feat, ac­cept that my old self was gone and re­place my old clothes with a wardrobe for mid­dle age. It’s a de­ci­sion

I’d seen many women reach in their for­ties, and some seemed to find peace in sur­ren­der.

LAST-DITCH AT­TEMPT

The only other al­ter­na­tive seemed un­likely to work. I approached Detox-fit (pt.detox-fit. com), a firm that pro­vides per­sonal train­ing and nu­tri­tional sup­port, to ask whether a 46-year-old woman re­cov­er­ing from can­cer, chemo and grief stood a chance of get­ting fit and shed­ding 2½st. The re­ply? Why on earth did I con­sider my­self old? Tamox­ifen might make it take longer to get fit but I’d achieve more than that, ap­par­ently – they’d

have me in the best shape of my life. When you’ve stopped tak­ing care of your­self, it’s pro­foundly af­fect­ing to find that some­one else wants to. I signed up on the spot.

Detox-fit’s nu­tri­tion­ists pre­scribe a strict ve­gan diet and, for the first month, they de­liv­ered a weekly sup­ply of ve­gan meals to my fridge. Hav­ing never even flirted with veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, these were a rev­e­la­tion. Eg­g­less frit­tata, faux prawn tem­pura and creamy soups soon saw off any no­tion that ve­g­an­ism lacked va­ri­ety. Break­fast would be some­thing like a ba­nana, oat, nut but­ter and flaxseed smoothie; lunch, a brown rice stir-fry with chick­peas and greens; din­ner might be av­o­cado and pesto zoo­dles with cherry toma­toes; and I’d snack on berries or a green smoothie. Best of all, ve­g­an­ism lib­er­ated me from the end­less mental ne­go­ti­a­tions over what to eat. Once I be­gan fol­low­ing a plant-based diet, pretty much ev­ery­thing I was eat­ing was good for me, so I didn’t have to keep score. Far from feel­ing de­prived, I felt in con­trol.

A GRAD­UAL PROCESS

For the next nine months, I’d be spend­ing more time at Ken­tish Town Sports Cen­tre with my PT than hang­ing out with my mates, which would be hard work if he turned out to be stereo­typ­i­cally clean-liv­ing and smugly whole­some. I needn’t have wor­ried. Rory Lynn plays pro­fes­sional rugby, de­scribes him­self as ‘a laid-back North­ern lad’, par­ties jaw-drop­pingly hard and is prag­matic rather than pi­ous about ex­er­cise. And he can af­ford to come across as re­laxed as he does be­cause, with his elite tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise, he has noth­ing to prove.

I was a bit dis­ap­pointed when he said we’d spend the ini­tial ses­sions strength­en­ing my joints to guard against in­jury, so it was mor­ti­fy­ing to find that even this glo­ri­fied stretch­ing left me gasp­ing for breath. But noth­ing had pre­pared me for the shock of push­ing my­self to the limit week af­ter week – and mak­ing no dis­cernible progress at all.

Three months into the regime, I’d man­aged to lose roughly as much weight as my preTamox­ifen self would have shed on a diet in a week. I was close to de­spair. Willpower is easy to sus­tain when you can see the re­sults, but in their ab­sence, only the shame of let­ting Rory down stopped me throw­ing in the towel. I didn’t think even my pride could keep me go­ing for much longer. But then I be­gan to re­alise some­thing in­side me had changed. Post-trau­matic growth is a term coined by a pair of Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gists to de­scribe a phe­nom­e­non they ob­served in sur­vivors of ma­jor trauma. The lucky ones emerge from their or­deal not bro­ken but stronger, for­ti­fied by recog­ni­tion of their own in­ner re­serves.

Sim­ply get­ting through each day af­ter my part­ner died had felt a lot like work­ing out did now, I re­alised. The op­tion of quit­ting then hadn’t been avail­able – you can’t de­cide to give up be­ing a wid­owed sin­gle mother with can­cer – and this, I now saw, had bol­stered my stamina re­serves more than I’d known.

So, be­fore my body started to change, my spir­its mirac­u­lously be­gan to lift. Since my part­ner died, I’d tried ev­ery­thing to soothe my heart­break. I’d tried yoga, mind­ful­ness apps, an­tide­pres­sants; I’d tried keep­ing my­self busy; I’d even tried smok­ing cannabis. I’d kept a diary, binged on box sets, numbed

‘EN­DOR­PHINS LEFT ME BUZZING WITH OP­TI­MISTIC EN­ERGY’

my­self with day­time TV. None of it had worked. But train­ing with Rory re­leased en­dor­phins that left me buzzing with op­ti­mistic en­ergy. To es­cape the dark­ness of grief felt like get­ting out of jail and, far from dread­ing the gym, I be­gan to crave the next ses­sion, hooked on the un­fa­mil­iar sen­sa­tion of hap­pi­ness.

IN­NER STRENGTH

As I grew stronger, Rory ad­vanced to more recog­nis­able ex­er­cises: split squats, Rus­sian twists, ham­string curls. I got to grips with cook­ing my own ve­gan meals, man­aged my calo­ries and at last came the day when I glanced in a mir­ror and saw mus­cle def­i­ni­tion in place of form­less fat. All the months of work hadn’t been in vain.

I’d al­ways thought of work­ing out as rather like a cos­metic ren­o­va­tion. Flabby thighs could be thinned or podgy abs toned, but the es­sen­tial struc­ture of my body was, I as­sumed, un­al­ter­able. I could trim bits of me with ju­di­ciously tar­geted ex­er­cises, but would al­ways have a saggy bot­tom and lit­tle sad­dle­bags. At most, I wanted my bum to be smaller; I’d never dreamed it was pos­si­ble to con­struct a new one.

I will never for­get the shock of reach­ing be­hind to find mus­cles in my but­tocks. An­other day, my hand brushed the back of my thigh as I bent down and gave me the sur­prise of my life: I could feel ac­tual ham­strings, taut and firm. I’d never paid much at­ten­tion to my ham­strings in the past, be­ing un­able to see them, but when I checked, my whole body now looked quite dif­fer­ent from be­hind. Un­fa­mil­iar mus­cles were com­bat­ing grav­ity; my bum no longer sagged.

Hav­ing grown used to no one notic­ing the frump in black leg­gings op­po­site them on the Tube, when I be­gan at­tract­ing glances, it was con­fus­ing. Had I tucked the back of my skirt into my tights by mis­take? The penny slowly dropped. I was sim­ply be­com­ing vis­i­ble again.

To be trapped in­side a body you no longer recog­nise is like a liv­ing death. Get­ting fit feels like com­ing back to life. Had I known it would take nine months, I might have been too daunted to try, but what would have sounded like an eter­nity back then feels like the blink of an eye now. There is still a lot more work to be done, but I don’t think any­thing could daunt me now.

BE­FORE Weight: 12st 8lbs BMI: 25.3 Arms: 33cm Waist: 84cm Hips: 98cm Thighs: 58cm AF­TER Weight: 10st 6lbs BMI: 21Arms: 26cm Waist: 68cm Hips: 88cm Thighs: 50cm

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