“We will all encounter difficult things in our life, adversity and trauma. We never know what life has in store for each of us. Being resilient means coping the best way you can when life throws you curve balls. It means figuring out a way to get out of bed by putting one foot in front of the next. It also means trying to feel gratitude that your situation is not any worse, because you can always find worse. Resiliency is about mustering our inner strength and resources, and channeling our human spirit.”
Our February featured title is Chemo Muscles: Lessons Learned from a Psycho-Oncologist and Cancer Patient by Dr. Renee A. Exelbert. Renee answered our questions about her inspiration behind the book, her advice to cancer patients and their friends and family, and her plans for the future!
1.) What inspired you to write Chemo Muscles and share your experience with others?
I was dealing with so many emotions throughout my journey with breast cancer. I believed that I could offer a very unique perspective, as I was privy to having worked professionally as a psycho-oncologist with cancer patients, and knowledgeable about a great deal of coping resources relevant to adjusting to cancer. I also felt that there was a lack of resources that addressed the visceral, emotional experiences of someone walking the path of cancer. My book was the book I wish had existed when I was diagnosed.
2.) As a psycho-oncologist, an Adjunct Professor of Psychology, and a certified personal trainer, you offer readers your unique and professional expertise throughout the book. From a professional standpoint, what do you hope readers who may be going through a similar experience take away from Chemo Muscles?
I hope that readers learn many things, but I want to emphasize that this book is not just for individuals with cancer. There is a plethora of useful information for individuals who are supporting someone with cancer, as well as information for all healthcare providers. I hope that patients learn that they have a choice in their healthcare, and that they should exercise this power wisely, because their relationship with their healthcare team can actually impact their survival rate. I hope individuals with cancer learn that there are important coping techniques that can facilitate their adjustment to cancer, such as the use of humor, gratitude, social support, positive cognitions, touch, visual imagery, diet and exercise, amongst others. I also hope individuals with cancer can learn to advocate for themselves, and in turn, feel a greater sense of empowerment and control over their illness.
I hope that individuals supporting someone with cancer learn how to offer assistance that is concrete and directive, and better suited for someone who is already feeling disconnected and no longer comfortable asking for more help. I hope that these same individuals can learn ways that they may be inadvertently disempowering their friend or loved one, and to try to steer clear of these common pitfalls. I hope that healthcare providers can understand the gravity of their words and actions and can learn ways to better treat the patient with dignity and respect. These include, but are not limited to, behaviors like paying attention to their non-verbal cues, delivering important test results in a timely manner, being aware of trauma research, and seeing the patient as a whole person rather than a diagnosis. Additionally, ethical questions are posed for healthcare providers who are struggling themselves with illness, such as whether they have the responsibility to disclose their diagnosis to their patients.
3.) While you do offer readers your professional expertise, you also offer your raw, emotional, and personal experience. As a patient, a mother, and a survivor, what do you hope readers will take away?
I hope that readers will better understand the emotional journey of someone coping with cancer—their fears, their insecurities, their identity fluctuations, their need to maintain some sense of self and control. I am hoping that they learn that not everyone with a cancer diagnosis experiences the same things, and that there is not a “one size fits all” for how people cope.
I was one hundred percent candid with my emotions in this book, and I held nothing back. I hope that this elicits greater understanding from both loved ones of someone coping with cancer and healthcare providers treating individuals with illness. I hope that readers will understand what it must be like to have to speak to one’s own children about a cancer diagnosis, and how support or lack thereof from friends and family members can impact the cancer experience dramatically. I also hope that individuals with cancer will know that their feelings are valid and respected. By making myself vulnerable, I have allowed others to see how much I struggled, and that it is possible to grow from trauma and go on to live a good life.
4.) As you became more and more involved in your fitness journey, you realized that you were “regaining control of your body”. How can disciplined diet and exercise help those recovering from trauma?
Beyond my personal experience with feeling tremendously helped and empowered through diet and exercise, there is much research corroborating the positive effects of both. Disciplined diet and exercise can dramatically help those recovering from trauma. Exercise reduces your risk of many diseases, including cancer (women who exercise regularly can expect a 20% to 30% reduction in the chance of getting breast cancer compared to those women who did not exercise). Exercise also reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence and can even help people with cancer live longer.
On a psychological level, exercise improves self-esteem, cognitive functioning and body image. Exercise has also been shown to be an effective adjunctive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. A reduction of trauma symptoms occurs through a renewed sense of determination and hope, increased quality of life, and the cultivation of positive self-identity. Exercise can make individuals feel like they are active agents on their environment. I believe there is no greater way to feel in control of yourself and your body than to do a push-up. You are literally holding yourself up in the world. Metaphorically, when life pushes you down through trauma and adversity, you can push yourself back up.
In terms of our health, diet plays an extremely important role. In particular, the growth of cancer has been proven to be heavily impacted by diet, such as the evidence that sugar feeds tumors. Getting certain nutrients through eating whole and non-processed foods can help block tumors. One important fact is that many people who have cancer feel out of sync with their body. For me, I looked healthy and never felt sick, but the experience inside my body was harboring a different reality. As such, I felt as though my body had betrayed me. Diet and exercise were the two places where I could exert total control, and my body would listen. I would do chest flyes and see my pectoral muscles grow. I would consume protein, and see my body follow with the growth and development of muscle. Every time I lifted weights, I felt strong and healthy. Every time I grew muscle, I felt further and further away from being sick. And every time I ate healthy foods that I knew nourished me and were thought to have antioxidants that fought free radicals, I felt like I was taking an active role in keeping my cancer at bay and staying healthy. It was a science that was pure and concrete—cancer had taken that synchronicity away from me, but diet and exercise brought it back.
5.) At the end of the book, you write a beautiful passage comparing trauma and the human experience to the kaleidoscope:
“What we see in the kaleidoscope is that when the contents settle, we are exposed to something new and beautiful—new constellations of colors, new arrangements. The hope is that after a life trauma we can be resilient. However, not only be resilient, but experience new meaning and growth—a new way of seeing things; and increased perspective.”
What does it mean to you to be resilient? What advice would you have for readers who are fearful of the unknown and life after trauma?
We will all encounter difficult things in our life, adversity and trauma. We never know what life has in store for each of us. Being resilient means coping the best way you can when life throws you curve balls. It means figuring out a way to get out of bed by putting one foot in front of the next. It also means trying to feel gratitude that your situation is not any worse, because you can always find worse. Resiliency is about mustering our inner strength and resources, and channeling our human spirit. It is about maintaining a sense of faith in ourselves, in those around us, and in the universe. Humans are bound by our common joys and pain. Reaching out to others who have experienced trauma can also help us not feel alone. Resilience is about knowing that we are imperfect, and that our scars and bruises are things we should wear with pride. They are badges of honor and serve as symbols of the obstacles we endured and persevered through. These scars deepen us and help us grow into more developed people. Resiliency is also about learning from your pain, and figuring out if there are any gifts that you received from this pain. For individuals who are fearful of the unknown, I would say that we are all fearful of the unknown. We are all frightened to have bad things happen to us or someone we love. However, we must know that the best predictor of our future behavior, is our past behavior. We must look at other difficult experiences we have survived, and trust that we can get through this next difficult scenario as well.
6.) What is next for Dr. Exelbert? Any more books on the horizon?
I will be promoting Chemo Muscles: Lessons Learned from Being a Psycho-Oncologist and Cancer Patient for some time. I will also continue to lecture on topics related to mind-body. I have caught the “writing bug,” and cannot wait to get started on my next book. Stay tuned….
Renee was recently featured on Thrive Global, IdeaMensch, and the Suburban Folk podcast!
To learn more about Renee, visit www.drexelbert.com, or follow Renee on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Renee will be having a special book signing event at Book Revue on March 4, 2020. To RSVP, click here.