Once I healed up adequately from surgery, I returned to the gym to begin reconditioning my body.  Due to my compromised state, I chose swimming, a sport I’ve often used to rehabilitate injuries.  Luckily, it’s also one of my favorite activities.  My purpose was manifold:  to build physical strength; get adequate aerobic exercise while bypassing the impact of running; facilitate the flushing of chemotherapy toxins from my system; and submerge myself (literally and figuratively) in my own underwater process and journey.  While I was swimming laps, the pool became my own personal “think tank.”

I wasn’t so prepared for the culture of the locker room.

I’m not very modest (though I am discrete), but I generally think of myself as a private person.  Throughout my life, friends have described me as someone “who holds her cards close.”  Simultaneously (maybe on alternate days), I have a reputation for being very open, willing and able to collectively plumb the depths of existence.  (This public sharing of my internal journey through cancer would be an example of this.)  Whether I opt for one versus the other modus operandi depends in large part on the appropriateness and timing given the particular circumstances and also on the degree of emotional safety I feel at the moment.  In general, I prefer to choose when I’m going to divulge my innards.  I think most of us do.  It’s a control thing—and often, a healthy one.

So what happens in a 10’ by 12’ dressing room where anywhere from one to several women are in various stages of undress as they prepare to enter the pool or re-enter the world after their watery workouts?  What does nudity in such proximity allow in terms of curiosity, conversation, boundaries—and their absence?

I can’t say it was just in the locker room where these exchanges occurred, because it wasn’t.  I’ve been asked on the street, in the post office, at the theater and elsewhere about my health by complete strangers.  But there is something about the cloister of the changing room at the gym that yields a moistness in which these conversations take root, unembarrassed and unimpeded.  I mean, what do you do when you’re standing there butt naked trying your damnedest to “live strong” and the well-intentioned lady whose name you don’t even know sitting on the bench across from you pipes up and asks, “Do you have breast cancer?”

One of my favorite “dialogs” started with the typical, “Are you in chemotherapy?”  I answered that I had been and had finished a couple months prior.  “You remind me of my sister.”  “Oh?”  “Yes, she’s doing chemotherapy now, and she’s got a great figure.  Just like you.  She’s got this great butt, not like the flat one that I have.  She’s just like you; you both have great butts!”  I mean, what do you say to that?  Thanks, I think?  Did this conversation really begin with, “Are you in chemotherapy?” and end with an assessment of my backside?  I think I managed “Have a good day!” as I made my escape from the locker room that afternoon.

I find it interesting how these women, most of them “strangers” who I saw maybe once or twice a week, regularly monitored and commented on my progress.  While I thought I was minding my own business and taking care of myself, their need to connect around the status of my health continued to present itself.  Over time, I became less astonished by it, and in some ways, could feel how sweet it was to be noticed and tended to by this community of mostly older women, many of whom, I came to understand, had been there, done that, or knew someone who had.  Perhaps my commitment to health and fitness impressed them; sometimes they mentioned that.  But mostly it was my journey through cancer that seemed to inspire their curiosity and commentary.  Maybe it was too close to home and standing there in all our nakedness together, even closer than any of us could admit.  I often wondered if, with their encouragement (“You’ll be fine!”, “Your hair is growing in so fast!” “You’re doing great!”), it was really me they were reassuring.

These moments remind me of what a friend told me at the beginning of this journey: that cancer is a community illness.  We’re all affected by it, profoundly.  There’s really nowhere to hide.  The conversations in the locker room just made that glaringly obvious.  But maybe—through all those months of hauling my ass to the gym, pushing through exhaustion and frustration and fear, allowing others to see me stripped bare by this dreaded disease and through it all, still managing to keep my head above water—maybe, just maybe, there was a community healing going on as well.

That would be worth every last lap.