tennis at sunset

Coping with a Serious Illness through Exercise

Private: Neil Withington
Contributor Neil Withington

Sometimes, life can throw you into a complete tailspin. When I was in my early 30s, I discovered a lump in one of my breasts. I alerted my doctor, and after a biopsy, I was told that I had breast cancer. At the time, my youngest daughter was around a year old. My other daughter had yet to start preschool.

Unfortunately, my prognosis was not great. I had Stage III breast cancer. The tumor was rather large, and I also had lymph node involvement. It was an extremely stressful and scary time, and the diagnosis brought about a real possibility that I may be leaving my husband to raise our two young daughters on his own.

To treat the cancer, I elected to have a mastectomy. The surgery was performed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where I had given birth to my two daughters, and I was grateful to have a very caring and compassionate surgeon and medical team. Following the surgery, I underwent extensive chemotherapy to reduce the chances of a recurrence, but there remained a great deal of uncertainty about my future. I was constantly plagued with the recurring thought that I was going to die from my disease. It was overwhelming and began to consume me.

I was constantly plagued with the recurring thought that I was going to die from my disease. It was overwhelming and began to consume me.

Neil Withington with family
Neil, seen here with her family during the time of her treatment, used running, hiking and tennis as a coping mechanism.

I decided to try to use exercise to help me cope with my fears. Prior to my diagnosis, I would run outside as a way to relieve stress from my work. When I ran, I could put everything else out of mind and just focus on the physical exertion of running. I also loved the fresh air and being outside in all seasons. So, in between the chemo treatments, I would run as soon as I could do so.

Later on, I also began to play tennis. I had only played tennis a handful of times in high school, but I found that it felt really good to hit the ball! Tennis became my new outlet, and for the most part, I taught myself how to play. My in-laws, who lived in our neighborhood, had a homemade tennis court in their yard. I enlisted my husband as my tennis partner. As I improved, I also started to play with a friend who was a competitive player. In the summer, I often played every day, multiple hours each day! After my treatment was complete, tennis continued to be helpful as I approached anniversaries to my treatment, when I would undergo scans to check for any sign of cancer and fears were high. I continued to play tennis for roughly 20 years. Over this time, I went from being a novice tennis player to being a competitive club player.

In my mid-50s, I discovered a love for cycling. At the urging of a friend, I tried a triathlon and thrived on the challenge. I participated in my first Ironman at age 60 with one of my daughters as a way to celebrate being alive and surviving my cancer. I never thought that I would finish, never mind winning my age group! Triathlon training continues to be an excellent outlet for my stress, as well as a major source of accomplishment. When my coach proposed Race Across America, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to push my limits and demonstrate what women in their 60s can achieve.

Private: Neil Withington
Neil Withington

An Ironman Age Group Champion, Neil Withington completed her first Ironman event in 2010 at 60 years-of-age and has competed in more than a dozen Ironman events since that time.

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