In 2013, I was curious about the increasing trend in pole fitness popularity. I searched a bit and found there was a pole studio just a stone’s through from my home. After checking out the excellent Yelp reviews for Twirly Girls Pole Fitness, I took the plunge. Already a senior citizen, I was soon humbled by the challenge ahead. It certainly looked heaps easier than what I was about to put my body through. But with the ever-patient Bel as my first instructor, I refused to give up. I was intrigued with many things about Twirly Girls. The super supportive environment was tops on the list. Students and instructors alike were welcoming, encouraging and inspiring everywhere I turned. Every age, gender, and body type was well represented. I was also intrigued with the technical aspects of carrying out a pole trick. With a few tweaks of a position here or there, a trick that seemed impossible, from a strength standpoint, soon became a surprising success. What seemed to be an eternity to learn the basic climb, was soon followed by successful leg hangs, a Superman, a reverse ayesha, and a one-arm handstand. My drug of choice was being upside-down.
Then I hit a hiccup in my pole journey, and in life. In late 2016, I was diagnosed with tonsil cancer. It was explained to me that the success for a cure was 85-90%. My reaction was, “Woo-hoo”…when can I start???” But it was also explained to me that the treatment I would need was the most brutal of all cancer treatments. I would need to take a minimum of 3-4 months off work, would need lots caretaking and there would be a 50% chance that I would require a feeding tube, due to the eating and swallowing challenges in the months to come. Nothing they told me turned out to be false. I needed it all. High doses of radiation and chemo are the gold standard treatment and they work, at a price. Permanent issues would be hearing, taste bud and saliva losses.
Treatment began, as did new challenges. The physical challenges were now life challenges instead of pole challenges. Getting off the couch was the new challenge, instead of climbing the pole. Trying not to fall while walking to the bathroom was the new issue instead of trying not to fall while getting dizzy on a spin pole. Cleaning my feeding tube replaced cleaning my pole. Counting pills and calories, replaced counting push-ups and crunches, watching hair fall out replaced doing hair whips, not having to shave (okay not a challenge) replaced excessively shaving, using tons of lotion replaced using none, bundles of clothing replaced skimpy clothing, living in Uggs replaced twirling in bare feet.
In addition to the physical changes, there were cognitive challenges from both nutritional insufficiency and medication side effects as well as the financial burden to the tune of $12,000, beyond the insurance payment. My caretakers tried their best to cheer me up. For example one day while putting together the stand for my formula gravity bag, they decided to use it as a mock pole and danced around it posing and taking photos. I can’t remember if I laughed. If I did, it was just to appease them. Laughter was not an emotion at that point of my journey. I was now in survival mode. I cherish those photos now and can laugh along with them. After setting up my formula bag, we all soon realized that even this form of feeding was no match for my mucositis, gag reflex issues and nausea. When I would cough (a constant state with mucositis), my stomach would empty, losing most of the precious calories. Having held onto almost no calories for about eight days prior to this, it was time for a trip to a very crowded emergency room in downtown Oakland on a Saturday night.
In the E.R., I was immediately triaged to the front and admitted with a low heart rate and low potassium. I was kept in the hospital for a week while they tried to figure out how to successfully feed me. Doctors ordered different anti-nausea meds, administered them intravenous and set up a formula pump, called Kangaroo Joey. K.J.’s flow could be set extremely low, to a point where I was receiving calories around the clock, but so few at a time that they stayed down. A new K.J. was sent to my home at the same time that I was.
K.J. was by my side for the next two months. My exercise pole had been replaced with a pole for K.J. to hang, along with my bag of formula. K.J. and I came up with our own new pole moves and they weren’t pretty. K.J. fed me and hummed in rhythm as I slept. He was my lifeline. As the end of my six weeks of treatment approached, I looked forward to jumping up and getting back to life, but what I didn’t understand, was things would continue to get worse before they got better. Radiation continued to work its magic and hell beyond the treatment days. My throat was sore, my neck was red, bumpy and itchy, but worse than anything, the mucositis got worse and the inflammation grew constricting my throat. Swallowing pills and water became more and more challenging, let along any morsel of food that my caretakers tried to get me to try. Daily swallowing therapy was a must. At the end of two months those issues started to subside and K.J. and I separated, perhaps prematurely. Our relationship was over as I switched to drinking most of my calories.
In the months to come, food intake and calorie maintenance were still an enormous challenge. This was now due to dry mouth, compromised taste buds, early satiety, and still some nausea. With calorie intake being low, energy was compromised. But, each week got better and at the one-year point I was eating mostly solid food, although it still tasted pretty bad. At that point, with vast muscle loss, I returned to Twirly Girls because I missed my thicker pole (sorry K.J.) and even more, I missed my Twirly friends. My pole workout looked much different now. My low energy and dizzy spells prompted sitting down often (about 30% of the time in the beginning). I pushed through and at two years post-treatment I’m still working on the muscle, but I’m elated to say that I have 100% of my energy back, thanks to my wonderful caretakers, family, friends and doctors. But I also attribute much of this to exercise, including my favorite form, pole fitness. My drugs of doctor’s choice have been replaced by my drugs of choice, butterflies, ayeshas and handstands.
With oodles of gratitude, I have just graduated from 3-month checkups to 6-month checkups because my doctor says everything looks “pristine”. Bring on the next six years of twirling at Twirly Girls!