Breasts, Biking and Bravery
Overcoming Fear in Cycling and in Life After Surviving Cancer
How do we—as women—in life and in cycling help each other face our fears, move forward and find our power? How do we come together, build each other up and through this inspire our families and each other? Liv understands how women and cycling can do this, but I didn’t. I am a pelvic health physical therapist and I have helped people face fear and disability in my office and on the yoga mat for 20 years. I didn't know that my bicycle had the power to help me face my own fears. In the summer of 2015, I arrived in Whistler following two grueling bouts with cancer and the residual fear they left me battling. Somehow, thanks to a few amazing women and my bicycle, I am on the road to triumphing over my fear.
Fear is an instinct that keeps us safe, but it can also steal our joy. This is the story of my survivorship and how I took my joy back. You see, my bike has always been my friend. I grew up riding to the beach with friends when I was younger and mountain biking up the hill to my college campus. My bike was even on my first car when I got hit by a drunk driver at 27 (while my mother was dying of ALS) and its survival gave me hope. My bike has carried me up countless climbs and showed me the world. My bike was even there when my husband asked me to marry him on our traditional Thanksgiving mountain bike ride 15 years ago.
So, with all the love I have felt for my bikes, how did it so quickly become the trigger to all my deepest darkest fears? How does fear so quickly sneak into parts of our lives that support us and our freedom?
After having my first child I realized that I no longer wanted to speed down a hill for fear of falling and breaking my arm. “How would I hold my son?” I asked myself. That was reason enough for me to take my last ride downhill. I also didn’t want to spend so many hours away from my beautiful new baby. So, I took up trail running. There was less risk involved and I could finish a quick run in less than an hour. It was a seemingly perfect solution. With the birth of my second child, I birthed new fear. Now I had two small lives to prioritize, which meant even less biking.
A move to the Pacific Northwest didn’t benefit my fear of riding. As anyone who has ridden here knows, the mountain biking is amazing—but technical, especially for a rider from California. Rutty, wet and steep, the trails here dive between trees and over features. Did I mention I am a physical therapist? I have seen some of the most amazing recoveries; I have seen the health benefits of riding; I have experienced with my patients the blossoming of the human spirit with a return to their sport. But, I have also seen the injuries. The fear kept building.
In 2011, I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. No risk factors, no family history, I was a vegetarian who ran marathons.
How was it I thought I could protect myself from physical injury by staying off my bike?
I realized that it wasn’t my bike that I feared. I was scared of not being there for my family and not being able to participate in everyday life. As I recovered from major abdominal surgery and chemotherapy over the next year, I was able to rebuild my strength and find peace on my yoga mat.
The following year, I decided to rekindle the lost part of my relationship with my husband and my bike. I didn’t just miss the speed and getting far out of town, I also missed the time alone out in nature with my husband, carelessly enjoying life. We began biking together again and I started venturing out with my now 7 and 9 year old children. I enjoyed every minute of it. The fear was still there, but I was beginning to navigate the changes in my body and my relationship to my fear.
I began to feel empowered.
Whamo! Four years later, I received a new diagnosis—this time it was breast cancer. I was just beginning to celebrate the end of the doctor’s watchful eye and the return of normalcy. Six weeks after my diagnosis, I was in recovery after a double mastectomy. I didn’t even look at my bike. I walked and walked and walked some more. Every day I found my yoga mat, but it was all I could manage. When a diagnosis comes that is unexpected, the heart rate goes up and fear can easily creep in. I treat patients struggling with fear every day, but I am also human. Knowing and understanding did not protect me from feeling. I was scared every day. I knew my life was not at risk, but my function and quality of life was.
I had all but forgotten about my bike and my desire to learn to ride again when we arrived at Crankworx, Whistler 9 weeks after my surgery. Mountain bikers were everywhere! Men, women and children all appeared to me happy, carefree and dressed for the occasion. My children were signed up for downhill lessons and my husband was in meetings, so I would be alone most of the day. My well-meaning husband encouraged me to sign up for the Rebecca Rusch women’s clinics to get on my bike again.
No way! Show up with a bunch of experienced women riders and admit I was scared, forget that! I would much rather face my fears alone. Thank you very much.
So, I demoed a bike and went on what were supposed to be “easier” trails—alone. It is good to be alone when you are scared and riding some of the most epic mountain biking trails in the world, right? Not so much. I walked when I saw a rock. I walked when I saw a bridge. I walked when I saw a tight, banked turn. I let my fear control me.
I came down the mountain and cried buckets of tears. Why was my body failing me? Why was I so fearful? Why did I get cancer again? Why, why, WHY?! Every time I felt fear about my ability to ride all my others fears came with it. In the psychology world this is called “the snowball effect.”
After calming myself down with a green drink and some meditation on life, I headed to the SRAM tent, and met the hosts of the Rebecca Rush rides. There, I met a lovely woman named Summer and we shared stories about our girls and their brave downhill riding, her life in Bend and her work with Ladies AllRide and Grit Clinics mountain bike camps. Somehow, talking with another mom made me feel like maybe I could learn to ride again.
Then, I met Lindsey Voreis. Of course, the topic of fear came up. She explained that in biking, some men tend to say things like, “Let the bike go, it will do the work!” and “Get your butt back!” I have heard all that one too many times, it did not help me “roll” over anything. Instead, it made me feel less in control, frustrated and jealous of my fearless husband. Lindsey spoke about the camps Ladies AllRide offers and how they help women ride with balance and control, how they encourage each other and discuss the natural feeling of fear that bubbles up when we do things that are new. She said that they practice a lot on the flat ground with skills that help make you a safer rider. Summer and Lindsey encouraged me to come out the next day for a free clinic with them and Leigh Donovan. How could I say no to these caring, like-minded women? Their energy was contagious! I agreed, while thinking to myself, “Maybe one of my kids will need me tomorrow and I will have an out!”
No excuses presented themselves, but I found myself feeling much differently the next morning. I felt like not showing up would signify to my family that quitting when the going gets tough is okay. You see, my fear was becoming irrational and my whole family new it. I grew up on my bike and now I couldn’t ride down a single track hill with turns, let alone welcome a rut.
Arriving at the clinic, the energy in the women was palpable and the atmosphere inclusive. We spent the first half of the clinic finding our balance point on the bike, learning how to corner and roll over small obstacles. Then we took to the trails, following Leigh on some beginner single track trails, finding flow on banked turns, maneuvering over some small obstacles and working our way up moderate climbs. Somehow, having a woman in front of me and behind me gave me courage to press on. Everyone was encouraging and patient. “Whoo hoo!” and “You got this!” and “Good job!” could be heard resonating in the forest.
Fear pulls at us. It is like an elastic band that really wants to set free. I became aware of the rhythm of my fear that day. In a moment I would freeze, trying to control the fear by going slower. But, going slow only gave me more time to think about it. So, I pushed into my legs, deepened my breath and let the fear move through me with the bike instead of letting it move into my hands to grip the brakes.
While riding with those women, I realized the lessons I had learned from facing cancer could also be applied to mountain biking:
Without the courage to face our fears, we stay stuck in a life of mediocrity and dis-ease. We must be willing to step outside our comfort zone if we want to experience life at its best and true wellbeing.
I am not going to lie, riding still scares me. But, I have found a friend in biking again. I have come back to my bike and changed my relationship with fear. I have learned to be afraid and do it anyway.
Kendra Wilks - Camas, WA
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it, the brave man is not he who doesn’t feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” - Nelson Mandela
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