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Part 1: How STOTT PILATES® helped me find the mental and physical strength to fight for my life

Living with cancer and building strength with Pilates

From left: STOTT PILATES® Certified Instructor Anita Connolly and her client Sharon Crowe at the Uxbridge Pilates Studio.

Article written by Sharon Crowe

I was first introduced to Pilates more than five years ago. My friend Anita Connolly had recently completed her STOTT PILATES® certification and was excited to begin her new career. I’d been a yoga girl for more than 10 years and my instructor had just moved away. The timing seemed right. Besides, Pilates was the same as yoga, right?

My education began my first class. Imprint had to be mastered, and no matter how baggy my shirt was, Anita always knew when I was cheating. I needed to learn the breathing technique to maximize my movements. There were days after those first classes that I couldn’t laugh without feeling my abdominals singing.

Read Part 2: Creating safe and effective STOTT PILATES® programming for a client with breast cancer >

Read Part 3: Modified STOTT PILATES® exercises for a client with breast cancer >

Lesson #1 - Pilates is not the same as yoga!

It wasn’t long before I was hooked on Pilates. My whole body felt stronger— legs, arms, core. I had more energy. The better I felt, the more motivated I was to challenge myself. A 30-second plank became a one-minute plank, then two. The night I did my first three- minute plank, I was pumped! It felt like such a huge accomplishment.

As you get older, the body becomes harder to predict. Moments of enlightenment come with setbacks, as happened to me about a year later. I herniated a disk in my lower back. It was painful. I walked with a limp. I couldn’t bear standing for any length of time and I was just generally uncomfortable. Medication was prescribed, but that only masked the pain instead of treating the injury. I tried physiotherapy, but realized the exercises recommended were exactly what I was doing in Pilates class. My knowledgeable Pilates instructor was able to design an individualized program that continued to strengthen my core. I no longer needed to take medication. A strong core turned out to be the best pain reliever. My abs were now able to do more of the work supporting my body and its movements, taking pressure off my back.

Anita working with Sharon on Reformer

Lesson #2 - Not only is Pilates healthy, it’s healing.

By the summer of 2017, my Pilates routine was ingrained in my daily life. I referred to the Uxbridge Pilates Studio north of Toronto, Canada, as my “happy place,” and was seriously looking into the purchase of an At Home SPX® Reformer for personal use.

But then in late August, I began experiencing random pain in my lower back. I thought I had possibly re-injured my disk, but the pain gradually became more constant and more intense. It spread to my spine, neck and pelvis. The pain became so bad that I had difficulty carrying a purse. I could no longer go grocery shopping because I couldn’t reach up or down to grab things off shelves. I had difficulty sitting on a toilet. I often cried riding in the car because every little bump sent shooting pains through my entire body. Walking hurt, but standing still was worse. I couldn’t lie down in bed to sleep. Actually, it was difficult going to sleep at all. Vacuuming, laundry... everything hurt, all the time. It affected my Pilates workouts, and eventually I stopped going to my classes altogether. It was a difficult time.

After a bone scan in January 2018, I finally got a diagnosis. Metastatic breast cancer. I had previously been treated for breast cancer in 2004 and again in 2007 and I’d come to consider it ancient history. Now it had spread to my bones... to my spine, pelvis, ribs. Stage 4, no cure, but thankfully, a treatment. Because my bones had become so brittle, I had many compression fractures, which explained why I was in so much pain. My body needed to rest. I began taking medications to strengthen my bones and to slow the spread of cancer cells. I also began taking some heavy duty painkillers to manage the pain, something I had resisted for months.

Any cancer diagnosis is terrifying. To hear the words “no cure” is devastating. The very worst part of it for me, personally, was the guilt I felt seeing the sadness and fear in the eyes of the people who loved me most. It was a very heavy burden.

I took four weeks to rest, and then I called Anita. I needed to come back. She hesitantly agreed. I walked into my first class and found one chair, complete with comfy cushions for padding. Anita had done her homework. I wasn’t able to lie on a mat anymore, and I couldn’t stand for long periods of time. I also couldn’t sit on hard chairs. So for an hour I sat in my comfy, padded chair while Anita guided me through a complete workout, targeting my legs, arms, and most importantly, my core. I’m not ashamed to admit that the modified workout, in my modified chair, made me sweat. For the first time in a long time, I felt good, physically and mentally, and I knew that Pilates HAD to be part of my prescription for living with cancer.

Anita helping Sharon with Reformer straps

Lesson #3 - Pilates is not only good for the body, it’s good for the soul.

It wasn’t long before I hated that chair. It represented limitations that I wasn’t ready to accept. Fortunately, I had a very like-minded instructor. Anita was not ready to accept the deterioration of my posture. I was so hunched over that I was spending most of my time looking at the floor. The Stability Ball replaced the chair, and Anita also began incorporating some barre time into my hour. I could feel myself getting stronger. My range of motion and flexibility were coming back. My muscles had spent months rigidly clenched into tight little balls to deal with the pain, and now they were standing up and fighting back. At least that’s the way I saw it.

Gradually, as my muscles and bones grew stronger, I was able to do more and more. Anita asked so many questions and listened when I described how my body was feeling. She was able to modify exercises while still ensuring I got the maximum workout. She amazed me every week with new movements that were challenging, but at the same time felt good. Simple things like a thin Pilates Foam Cushion to lift my head slightly or a Mini Stability Ball placed under my pelvis while lying on the mat made all the difference in the world. Many times I walked into class and Anita greeted me with a big smile and a piece of paper. I would groan because I knew that piece of paper meant Anita had been doing her research and I was in for some work!

Lesson #4 - Your instructor is the most important part of a Pilates class.

I honestly can’t say enough about this. If an instructor tells you to fight through the pain, or does not modify difficult exercises, or does not correct your technique several times a class, find a new class!

I have been living with metastatic breast cancer for over a year now. I’ve come to accept my new reality. For every one thing that cancer may have taken from me, I can think of several more that it can’t take. At 53, I’m in the best physical shape that I’ve been in in years. My oncologist has commented several times about how good I look, and how great my posture is considering my condition. The nurse who checks my blood pressure is impressed with my muscle tone. I have been able to reduce my pain medication to a minimal dosage, something that was very important to me.

Sharon and Anita in Uxbridge Studio

I understand the importance of the drugs I have to take to treat my cancer. They literally are saving my life, but Pilates is allowing me to live my life. Every time I walk my dog, carry a laundry basket up a flight of stairs, sit comfortably in a restaurant enjoying a meal, or pick up some groceries, I am thrilled with the normalcy of it all. I have Pilates to thank for that. Every imprint held, every plank, Mermaid, Tree, or Hawk is a victory for me, and I do keep score. Every time I leave a class sweaty and tired makes me the winner.

Lesson #5 - Cancer is tough, but Pilates is tougher.

Don’t miss Part 2 of this series on how STOTT PILATES Certified Instructor Anita Connolly created suitable programming for Sharon’s needs. Coming soon!

A version of this story was published in Pilates Style magazine. Read it here >

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