Alaska News

Changing pace: How one Juneau woman prioritized fitness during and after cancer treatment

Jody Schmitz's family moved around a lot when she was a child, eventually settling in Juneau when she was in middle school. She married her high school sweetheart, raised two children, and worked as an accountant for the state. After a lump was discovered during a routine mammogram in 2005, Schmitz traveled to Seattle for a biopsy. The results suggested there was no cause for worry.

She resumed her life in Juneau.

"You forget about it, right?"

Not for long. In a subsequent mammogram it appeared the lump had changed in size. She returned to Seattle for additional investigative procedures. She waited close to 90 minutes to get a new set of biopsy results. The appointment was delayed because the staff was trying to schedule an additional appointment for her. "With whom?" she asked the receptionist.

"The radiation oncologist."

The sky fell, Schmitz said. She collapsed into a mess. She was confused and scared; none of her close friends or family had been through this. It was uncharted territory.

The tumor was on the left side of her heart. Schmitz had to inhale to move her heart so the surgeon would have enough room to work. Breath by breath, bit by bit.

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Back and forth she traveled from Juneau to Seattle for various surgeries and treatment, including seven weeks of radiation.

Schmitz smiled when she recalled her outlook on the grave prognosis.

"You have to have a sense of humor," she said. "I pretended I was away at a spa and I had a personal trainer, all these people waiting on me. "

Fitness had always been a mainstay through Schmitz's life. Luckily, the treatment program in Seattle had an associated "active program" which provided patients with facilities and supervised training.

"That was a huge outlet," Schmitz said. "I was thinking, 'Take that, cancer!' with every stride."

She took to walking the city, and got to the point she could answer people asking about directions.

After spending the majority of that fall undergoing treatment in Seattle, Schmitz returned to Juneau feeling "like a zombie." Instead of resting and recuperating, she overdid it, trying to stay active. She had to take some time at home to recharge.

"You have to kick yourself in the rear end to get a jump start again," Schmitz said. "We all have peaks and valleys."

Treatment, Schmitz said, can prohibit many people from having an active lifestyle. It caused lethargy and depression, which she admittedly cycled through. But her fitness was a quality of life choice. She knew she had to continue working out for mental survival.

"I know how I feel when I'm done versus when I started," Schmitz said. "It's a feeling of accomplishment. You know you treated your body well; you did something for the future. It's like an investment. Your mind clears. You're not (going on a run)—you're solving problems, having conversations; you're in a whole other land."

She also had grandchildren, and wanted to keep up with them. She knew she had to change her outlook on activity; she didn't have to run, she could walk. She could hike. She taught herself how to swim, and found other women to join her, advancing from a dog paddle to two hours of lap swimming. She didn't feel like she had to continue playing softball and basketball; she could do things like garden.

"I consider gardening an activity," Schmitz explained. "It's a lot of weight training. I'm a dig-it-up-move-it kind of gal. You may say, compared to my earlier life, I've slowed down, but I've just kind of changed pace."

Schmitz said she still tires easily, but she regained most of her energy. It's been more than 10 years since her treatment and she regularly goes to a fitness club where she takes spinning classes three times a week. Having workout buddies was a key to her success for accountability as well as enjoyment.

Schmitz is quick to admit that treatment—and if you're lucky, recovery—varies wildly depending on the individual and that she speaks purely from self-experience. What is important and worked for her may be different, difficult or not applicable to another woman.

"Not everyone gets a second chance at life or a 'do-over' after they are diagnosed with cancer," Schmitz explained. "But I did...You have to do a bit of soul searching to find truly what matters to you, hold onto that and let the rest fall by the wayside."

For a list of breast cancer resources and support in Alaska click here.

This article first appeared in the 2015 edition of Alaska Pulse magazine. Contact Pulse editor Jamie Gonzales atjgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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