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…
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?
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.
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.
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