Andrea Linton of Alpena walked into my office beaming and asked if we could chat. Moments earlier, my fingers were flying across the keyboard keeping pace with my mind. But her smile drew me in and made me stop.
Andrea, a married mother of two young girls and a high school health teacher, had just finished an appointment in the cancer center at the Alpena Regional Medical Center. She's no stranger there, in fact she's been receiving treatments and injections for 2 1/2 years while fighting stage four metastatic breast cancer.
So, why the smile today? She had drain tubes removed. They'd been dangling from her body, restricting her every movement for weeks since her most recent surgery. When the nurse pulled the tubes out of her back, she said it felt like a snake moving through her body. Yet, she was smiling. She explained that she'd been carrying around a fanny pack for weeks, connected to the tubes, and was simply glad to be rid of it.
She lifted the back of her shirt and showed me a scar running across her body.
I got goose bumps. The plastic surgeon had to remove muscle in her back to rebuild her pectoral muscle. With this change in muscular structure, she said it's difficult to pull a seatbelt across her body, or even push the little button to release it, yet she's happy.
Her next statement tells an even greater story. She said could not wait to get clearance from her doctor next week to return to the health club. She missed exercise since her most recent health challenge, which stemmed from a life-threatening staph infection that required emergency surgery to remove her breast implant. The surgery was not related to the cancer, but to the reconstruction. As if fighting cancer weren't enough.
Talk about focusing on what you can do rather than what you cannot do. Andrea has been through more surgeries, discomfort and worry than most of us can relate to and yet she's focused on getting active again. She said that her routine of daily fitness will help her stay on track with healthy eating. She shared honestly that in a three-month hiatus from fitness, she indulged in more unhealthy food than she had in years. She was amazed at how powerfully the mind and body are connected. Regular physical activity makes her choose, even crave healthier foods. What a lesson on so many levels.
Andrea chooses to be happy. She embraces a large burden daily from cancer to surgeries to never having her full strength or even her own body back. She said she just doesn't let her mind go there. She only focuses on what she can do.
She has scars, a new pectoral muscle, and lopsided breasts for the time being, but she has the determination of a fighter. She said (with a shrug) that she'll probably never be able to do a push-up again, but she was going to test out a few sit-ups in her living room, now that the tubes are out of her body.
"I have cancer," she said. "And I always will. But it doesn't affect the way I live my life. I live like I don't have it. Getting the tubes out from this surgery was a big deal to me huge. Once again, I appreciate the things I can do like twist, turn, lift and even take a shower without a production."
Andrea's advice for others is to not sweat the small stuff. She said that living active is the only way to really live. It's not about the scale. Sure, she'd love to take off those last pesky pounds, but to her exercise is about keeping her sanity.
"I have scars and my body is what it is. I don't even care about that. The bottom line is to live your life and be happy. But happy and healthy go together."
Trina Gray is the owner of Bay Athletic Club, a mother of two, a national presenter on fitness and wellness and a change agent in the community. Her wellness column appears monthly.