The Last Normal Hour
Journal Entry by Kelly Strider — May 19, 2022
On September 28, 2021, I returned to Zumba at PulsePDX for the first time since well before Covid. Like many people over the preceding year and a half, I was experiencing a loss of fitness; I often described the feeling of my body as “squishy” and “sluggish.” Starting earlier in the year, maybe around February, I had also developed an acute pain in my upper right chest, just off center from my sternum. It hurt intensely for some part of every day, and brought me to the emergency room twice in May. For most of the year, it was thought to be a musculoskeletal, inflammation-related problem, and treated as such–physical therapy, anti-inflammatory injections, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments. Starting a regular exercise program was my last resort when all those other measures weren’t working.
I was never encouraged to be active in any fashion while growing up, and as a teenager and young adult, I only came to see exercise as something that could help me permanently move past my chubby childhood. Last fall was the first time in my life I pursued exercise with absolutely no goals related to my body’s appearance; I was desperate to simply feel better. Fernando’s midday Zumba classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays immediately delivered, with song choices I fell in love with and choreography that suited my style and how my body likes to move. In the mirror-less, nightclub-lit space at Pulse, it was easy to escape into another world, apart from daily demands. Within a month, I upped my membership from 2 to 4 classes a week.
The end of October also found me finally getting an MRI to further assess the non-improving chest pain, and it was in my car after Fernando’s class on November 4th that I read the findings. There were phrases whose individual words I knew the definitions of, but didn’t understand their collective meaning: “profoundly abnormal bone marrow signal intensity,” “apparent aggressive process with bone destruction,” and “differential considerations primarily include neoplasm.” That last word was cancer talk.
The following Tuesday saw me getting surgery to biopsy my sternum; no Zumba that day, or later in the week. I tried to make up for the missed classes and stay on my new fitness course by going to WERQ the following Monday. But between not being recovered enough from the surgery, the high emotions around waiting for the biopsy results, and having learned after surgery that there were “areas of concern” related to nodules on one of my lungs, I left class early, in tears. Turns out, I’d just missed a call from the doctor, to tell me that the biopsy had been contaminated.
I can’t remember if I made it to Zumba that week, but I do know that I was well on my way to having a new and very different relationship with my body, one that was primarily focused on its ability to function and allow me to continue enjoying life. The night of November 18th, I was admitted for an unplanned second surgery: I had developed an abscess from the first biopsy, and cleaning it out surgically would also allow access for a biopsy of the lung nodules and a re-biopsy of my sternum. I was not going to be exercising any time soon, and on November 24th, the day before Thanksgiving, I received the diagnosis of Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for which I’d be doing 6 months of chemotherapy, starting December 9th.
My Google calendar tells me that the week after Thanksgiving was dominated by doctor’s appointments, not that my post-op state would’ve let me go to class anyway. But according to that same calendar, I did go to class on December 7th. Although that first chemo appointment was in the morning, keeping me from class, all the others have been on Thursday afternoons, every other week, at 1:00 PM. Zumba is at 11:45 AM.
On most Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have been at Fernando’s class, grateful to be dancing, grieving so many hard moments, and fantasizing about all the things I have to look forward to after I finish chemo on May 19th. The music we warm up and cool down to is always about community and resilience; in other words, the love we show each other and the love we show ourselves when we keep going. When the hair loss became unmistakable, and I shaved my head the day after Christmas, I took comfort in the darkened space at Pulse, where I could decide when and how much to step into the colored lights. And on those bi-monthly Thursdays, I’ve gotten to go to class and feel good and strong in my body, before it gets re-weakened by a cruel treatment that’s meant to wipe out a crueler disease. I can’t wait until class is just another hour in the day again, but I have been so thankful during the past six months when it’s held a much greater meaning.