August 25, 2023

Do You Push Your Limits When You’re Sick?


I just got back from a ten-day heavenly trip to Georgia with Shannon: lush palms, Spanish moss, butterflies, lazy boating on a lotus lined river, and my mystery fever (just for a day).

I get mystery fevers every few weeks and have for a long time.  I down Tylenol, drink tons of water, lay low that day and don’t push it the next day.  If I get a little cancer PTSD, I take xanax and snuggle with Shannon.

On vacation, the day after my mystery fever, we visited the gorgeous Savannah-Ogeechee Canal with a 1-mile roundtrip walk. The heat index was 100 (which I actually love - call me crazy), the terrain flat and stunning.  I heard a voice in my head saying with confidence: “Don’t do the walk.  I know my limits…. Blog about this when I get home.”

Knowing my limits is instinctual now, but it wasn’t at the beginning of my cancer ride.  I used to push myself hard, like a poster-child cancer patient who was getting the most out of life. I was like Wafa’a, a lymphoma patient in Chapter 3 of Everything Changes, who was addicted to clubbing.  I didn’t want to feel left out, be home alone, or let cancer get the best of me.

But over time I’ve changed my definition of what the best of me is.  The best of me is not Kairol conquering a hiking trail in the beauty of nature, nor is it me feeling sexy in a great summer outfit, nor dancing my heart out in ballet class.  The best of me is when I can look long and hard in the mirror and just be satisfied with who I am no matter what I am doing or how I am feeling. There are no limits to this “best of me.”  I know, I’ve done this look’n-in-the-mirror as a pasty white ghost in a hospital gown about to swallow 150 millicuries of radiation.  If I can be the best of me in that situation, then I suspect it is fool-proof.

Recognizing the parts of me that are limitless makes it so much easier to accept my limits.  No big hike?  No biggie. I sat on a rocking chair at the ranger station and looked at the sky.   It was pretty lovely.  Ultimately I don’t know if it’s cancer that taught me to know my limits, or if it’s just part of being a young adult who is maturing and happens to have a few tumors in my neck.

Do you have a hard time knowing what your limits are?  Do you push them, respect them, hate them?  Has this changed for you over the course of your illness?

Read more about Wafa’a the cancer clubbing queen in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Alli Says:
    August 25th, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    I listen to my body more and take it easy when needed. Though I did not used to. I worked fulltime during chemo and radiation and then ran errands and did chores. I felt like I needed to prove that cancer was not going to stop me from living my life. But that is what it did. I got so caught up in being super woman that I did not have the energy to enjoy life.

  2. Marielle Says:
    August 25th, 2009 at 5:45 PM

    I LOVE how you define “the best of me”. Thank you for sharing that. It’s hard to feel satisfied with oneself, but I think it takes a lot of maturity and self-acceptance to do this. I don’t push myself. At all. I figure, I had cancer, so now just take it easy. Glad that you had fun in the South!

  3. Wendy S. Harpham, MD Says:
    August 25th, 2009 at 10:52 PM

    Excellent post, Kairol.

    This is a button-pushing topic for me. Do I have a hard time knowing what my limits are? Not any more. After years of survivorship and cancer-related fatigue, I know the signs and symptoms of getting tired only too well.

    Do I push my limits? Sometimes. Respect them? Most of the time. Hate them? I used to, until I realized that anger and hate weren’t helping me in any way.

    Has this changed for you over the course of your illness? Yes, it had to for me to become a Healthy Survivor. Recognizing and respecting my limits has prevented problems and helped me get and stay as healthy as possible. I need to respect my limits not only for my self, but also for the people I hurt when I overstretch my limits and cause or get into trouble.

    btw, I devoted a whole section of HAPPINESS IN A STORM to the issue of recognizing and respecting limits in healthy ways.

    With hope, Wendy

  4. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    August 25th, 2009 at 11:09 PM

    Alli - I believe you are the same woman whose facebook update today was about doing laundry, shopping, and cleaning your house all before noon??? I had to smile at your comment. And Wendy and Marielle, it is great to feel at home in my skin when I read your comments. It is easy to look around the cancer world and see super-stars who are pushing the limits all the time. But that is not me anymore. It is not always physically possible, nor is it what I want for myself anymore. Glad to know I am not alone in this! Kairol

  5. anon me again Says:
    August 26th, 2009 at 12:36 PM

    I think that many of us do a lot of good kind of pushing - mental / emotional “pushing limits” - - to accept and love ourselves as we are - ourselves who may not be as physically strong as before, ourselves who have to say “no” to things we would want to do because we have to protect our (what is left of our) health, ourselves who can be brave and kind enough to still respect and love ourselves - requires so much inner work and courage, and this kind of pushing, yes I try to do.

    But physical pushing beyond limits, it’s not even something I can risk (well, admittedly occasional slipping, on “good” days when my symptoms are relatively quiet).

    Of course I have gone through a lot of grieving and anger over the loss of my physical health - I used to travel all over the world for work with grueling schedule and 100lb luggage, now I hurt myself from doing 5 lbs weights and have to go to bed by 10 pm! Not fun. But I am pushing my limits to be emotionally and mentally strong to be as happy as possible for myself, grow more mature and at peace with myself - without going into denial about my illness. yes, easier said than done but I try and push my limits this way! :-)

  6. amy27 Says:
    August 26th, 2009 at 10:18 PM

    this post came just when i needed it most. i was just diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in march and struggle with this issue so much. i’ve recently gone into remission but will still do chemo every three weeks for-well, the rest of my life i’m told-and it really takes a lot out of me. i’m definitely still in the mode of wanting to be able to do everything that i did before my cancer. i’m 33 years old! i don’t want to have to take 5 days out of my busy life every three weeks where i have to sit around and do nothing because i’m too tired and sick to even leave my house.
    your post and the comments have given me something to think about. thank you!

  7. aftercancer Says:
    August 27th, 2009 at 8:11 PM

    I suck at this! Completely awful and it’s something that I am working on. I haven’t found my balance yet and honestly I wonder if part of it is just where I am in life. The kids are of an age where they need supervision, I can’t just go for a morning walk when it strikes me.

    I don’t want to wish away their youth but I also look forward to the day when I can leave them alone for half an hour when I need it.

  8. Suzanne Says:
    February 28th, 2011 at 5:43 PM

    I am a breast cancer survivor. I’ve been healthy for about 1.5 years. I switched careers while healing — from journalism to real estate. Weird, I know but it felt right. I pushed really hard at first in my new career. I really felt back to normal. Then I collapsed (not literally) and could barely get out of bed for two weeks. I still feel tired and sad. I just randomly break out in tears all the time. I want to move on and be normal so badly. I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know the right thing to do. Rest or go on. Rest or go on. I thought I was beyond this.

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