Swimming away the effects of chemotherapy

Peggy Cumming, is a wife, mother, grandmother of 6, sister, niece, cousin and friend, as well as a teacher - retired after 34 years in the classroom - and an athlete.  She is now recovering from thoracic surgery and undergoing chemotherapy.


For years, I have proudly worn my swim club team T-shirt. The slogan on the front reads:

You don’t stop swimming because you get old,

You get old because you stop swimming!

In early January, as I was pulling into the parking lot for swim practice, the radio announcer said, “For your morning commute, the time is 6:15, and the temperature is -27.”

I wasn’t alone in the pool that morning – there were 15 of us, and another twenty at the later practice. As usual, we moaned to our coach about a kick-set that is too long, and groaned about too many 100 IMs. But the brief bantering is part of the culture, part of the fun, and the coach takes it with a smile. Four mornings a week, for 22 years, I have been going to the National Capital Region Y Masters Swim Practice to start my day. Some of the swimmers who founded the club 34 years ago are still swimming; others devotees have joined more recently. One is an octogenarian. After practice, some swimmers go to university, some go home to young children, some gather for social coffee, most scurry off to careers.

Our swimming passion has its own unique cultural allure. Our fantastic pool has floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows on two sides, bringing in the pink glow from the morning sun rise, and giving a dancing sparkle to the churning surface of the water. On the turquoise pool tiles, the waves’ shadows twirl and twist, like an ever changing work of art. Through my goggles, the shadow patterns, and the strokes of other swimmers, are endlessly entertaining; (I’m easily entertained!)

I love the feel of the water over my body: push-off from the wall, glide, three dolphin kicks, transition to flutter, powerful arm pull! I love the rhythms of breathing – inhale, and glimpse the sun rising, exhale, and relax in the bubbles. The coach shouts: Pull hard! Full stroke extension! Grab the catch! … and when it all comes together, it feels perfect! After an hour, and usually 2 km distance, I am deliciously exhausted, relaxed, and ready for the rest of the day.

Even now, when I’m in chemo treatment, it is extremely important for me to swim. The joy is all of the things I mentioned, but more than that, it is my blissful bubble of normality, and contact with friends. It gives me a few hours where I feel the warmth of welcoming hugs, splashes and smiles that speak of support, without words. It is encouragement for me to swim hard when I can, and acceptance to rest when I must. It is the sincere, ‘How are you?’ where I don’t need to explain. It is my Happy Place.

I strictly forbid thoughts about my health issues to enter my bubble. I treat the hours as a sacred time for gathering and experiencing only positive feelings, strengths and thoughts. I treasure the routine of the ladies’ locker room; the communal shower, the snippets of conversations about shoes and shampoos, updates with families and jobs, tips for nutrition and fitness, and – the best medicine – laughter! I welcome the overwhelming familiarity and sheer ordinariness of the morning ritual. Until I was diagnosed, I had not experienced such gratitude for the mundane moments and memories of life, but now I gather them, hold them tight, nurture the closeness that comes from our shared swimming passion, and revel in my fortune to be part of this environment.

I now have a private version of the club’s slogan, almost a mantra:

I won’t stop swimming because I got sick,

I’ll get healthy because I keep swimming!

The forecast for tomorrow morning is again for -27 Celcius, but at 6:15 I will be at the Y!

Peggy has her own photoblog, , where she posts a photograph every day.