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Swimming — Itís Not Just for Conditioning Anymore

by Swimmer Chantal Pease
8/16/99

It is not pleasant to hear you have breast cancer. I was surprised, however, I was not upset when my gynecologist called me regarding my abnormal mammogram. In fact, I felt bad for her because she sounded so distressed about my pathology report (one reason I like my doctor, she cares for me). She made me promise to see a surgeon immediately. I needed a biopsy ASAP. Her sense of urgency got me off my ..... and I started looking for a surgeon. There are 8000+ physicians in this city, I donít know how many of them are surgeons, but there is too much choice, whoís the best for me? So I went to see one and decided that one would become my surgeon (mind you, he operated on a very good friend of mine and sheís doing great). When the biopsy came back positive, a second urgency arose: how best to treat this tumor, also, has it spread? After listening to my surgeonís recommendations (he had a shopping list of them), reading articles on my type of cancer, statistics and all, I opted for a modified mastectomy, unilateral? bilateral?... Well, I decided to hang onto as much of myself as I could. So unilateral mastectomy it was. In the meantime, I needed to find an oncologist. I needed some reassurance this was the right decision. Two days before my scheduled surgery, I was able to meet and “assess” the oncologist of my choice. Thank goodness, heís great, he agreed with my decision. Et voilà, one month after my gynecologistís call, Iím a cancer survivor at least for now (I hope for longer too).

Whatís the point of my story? Well, of course it has to do with swimming, otherwise you wouldnít be reading this. After this whole saga, I could barely move my right arm, let alone raise it and stretch it. I could twist and turn no more. I was wearing an armour. There was no question Ė I couldnít swim. Now, mind you, I donít eat and drink swimming, but I must admit that the sport has grown on me after all these years with the Masters. As Emmett, my coach, so well describes, I am one of his many fitness swimmers. He can hardly make me go to meets unless they are in town, but he sees me regularly in the mornings. I must admit also that I like to chat with my friend Renée when we swim side by side. I know it unnerves our coach, but he is patient with us. We are among his oldest swimmers and he needs us in the 50+ category for points at meets.

After the surgery, a volunteer from the Cancer Society came to visit. She showed me a number of exercises that I was to do on a daily basis in order to regain my range of motion. It was OK, but I was getting frustrated. My movements were more and more limited. Three weeks after I came home from the hospital, I decided to go with my daughter to the pool and see how well I could float. I put on flippers. If all else failed, I could always kick. I started with the breaststroke because I did not need to stretch my arm as much as with freestyle. Also I ignored the streamline glide position, there was no way I could “squeeze my ears” — my butt yes, my ears no. I worked on extending my right arm out as far as my left one at the beginning of each breast stroke. It was a Friday, a long course day, so I repeated many of these in one long lap. Freestyle was impossible to do, it killed. The relative coolness of the water felt nice. Anyway, I did that for a couple of weeks while we were on vacation on a magnificent lake. When I returned mid July, I felt ready to rejoin the Masters, but I still could not lift my arm past 90 degrees. So I mainly swam breaststroke. However, I tried to swim freestyle a bit more each time. I realized that if I rotated my body more to the right side, I was able to stretch my right arm forward with more ease. I bet you Emmett is saying “I told you so!” Anyway after two weeks, I was amazed at how “nimble” I became. I think Iím pretty much back to where I was twomonths ago. I can swim backstroke with ease, and yesterday, I tried the butterfly arm swing. It was OK, i.e., no pain.

Has my recovery been fast? I donít know, but I think so. Here are some calculations. For my rehab, I was given six different exercises focused on stretching my arm in all directions, up, down, front, back, diagonal, and rotation. I was to repeat each one five to 20 times, at least once a day, three times would be best I was told. Thus, with the best of intentions, I would have done 20 times x 6 exercises = 120 arm movements. But there was one problem to all this: I was getting bored doing these repeats and compliance was becoming problematic. However, in the water, repetition of strokes was not an issue. It is the essence of swimming. So I realized that, with swimming, my arm would do not only all the exercises recommended for my rehab, but also would do them in greater number. Example: prior to surgery, I averaged 16 freestyle and 22 breast strokes per lap (average 20 strokes/lap). I would approximate 40 strokes or 20 with my right arm every two laps or 50 yds. Given one minute to swim 50 yards and a 45-minute true swim time (the other 45 minutes taken up by late arrival, rest, social interaction and early departure), I estimate that I move my right arm in one fashion or another at least 20 strokes/50 yds x 45 minutes or 900 times in one workout. So, maybe this is why I recovered relatively fast. This form of rehab is by far more pleasant. The water is nice, I chat and I swim!

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2000

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1982, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for ten years, holds an ASCA Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimmingís Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the MACA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. His book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers), is in its third English language printing and is also available in French (entitled Natation, published by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, published by Hispano Europea) and Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong). Currently he coaches the H2O Masters group in Houston in the River Oaks area and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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