Spoiler alert: My brain is fine. Also, this is over 1,000 words which means I am expressing my feels.

I have sad news.

In an earlier post I announced with much fanfare that I was going to compete in an Olympic-style weightlifting competition in August of this year.

Making that announcement was scary for me on many levels, the scariest of which was putting myself into the “athlete” category. Of all the labels that have ever applied to me—good student, good person, drummer, “creative type,” cancer patient, leader of some fashion—I have never been an athlete.

And now, nearly four months after that announcement, I have to retract that goal due to a physical limitation. More specifically, my right shoulder.

Long time readers of my blog may remember that I dislocated my shoulder in 2009, and had a surgery in March 2010 to re-stabilize the shoulder. The first time my shoulder was ever dislocated was when a pick-up truck struck me in the 8th grade. After my second brain surgery in 2009 I dislocated my shoulder again during in a spirited round of doubles tennis on the Nintendo Wii. (Insert laughter.)

People with dislocation injuries are at an increased risk of dislocating again. And again.

In 2009 I dislocated my shoulder not once, not twice, but seven times. After much consideration my medical team decided, for the sake of my quality of life, we would pause my chemo regime for a short period of time so I could have the surgery.

I used the shoulder surgery as another opportunity to document a medical experience and I enjoyed the break brain cancer for a few weeks.

I was a great patient and did all of the physical therapy exercises that were asked of me. I eventually regained a full range of motion in the shoulder except for something called “external rotation.” I remember joking with the physical therapist that this would ruin my pro baseball career (that I did not have).

Fast forward to four years later and me taking up weightlifting. I work with a trainer who is very smart and technique focused. I am not doing anything dangerous and I am not doing a ridiculous amount of repetitions (ala CrossFit™).

There is a wide variety of lifts in the weightlifting world, the most well known of which are the bench press, the back squat, and the dead lift (known as the “power lifts”). Then there are lifts that most people know from the Olympics: the clean and jerk, and the snatch.

Of course, I had to fall in love with the Olympic lifts; the most technical lifts in weightlifting world. There is something about these lifts that challenge my mind and my vestibular system (sense of awareness of my body in space, along with balance) and appeal to me on a cerebral level.

A video posted by The Liz Army (@thelizarmy) on

I am sure many athletes get into Olympic lifting for the mind/body challenge. But for me, a person who has had two brain surgeries in the parietal lobe—the home of vestibular system craziness—it took on a whole new meaning.

Weightlifting is a big “fuck you” to everything that has happened to me so far as a person with brain cancer. Every day I spend training to fire my neurons in a smooth, yet explosive, movement, is a day I reinforce a physical discipline I had no idea I could even possess.

I knew something weird was going on with my right shoulder for the last few months, but I chose to ignore it. I attributed the weird “hitching” and clicking sensations to the shoulder surgery but figured they would work themselves out over time. After a while I saw no progress in my overhead movements (the jerk and the snatch), and my trainer became worried. Finally she told me I needed to see a sports medicine doctor and get evaluated before I could go any further.

This is a long story and I will make it slightly shorter by not recounting every detail of my conversation with the doctor. Essentially, due to the multiple shoulder dislocations and the type of injury I sustained (called a Hills-Sachs lesion), I should never do anything involving the external rotation of my shoulder—more specially, to not do anything where I am putting something heavy over my head. And to be even more, more specific, to not do the jerk and the snatch—two of the three Olympic lifts. The doctor said I was lucky I hadn’t already fucked up my shoulder.

I saw my trainer later that day and cried. She didn’t try to tell me that everything was OK, or try to detract from my loss. Because that was what I was feeling: True loss.

Yes, I know my sadness does not compare to dealing with a crazy brain cancer experience, but you see I had somehow transferred a big chunk of my survivor identity to this weightlifting shit. Some people show the world they are moving on by growing their careers, having children, or buying homes. All of these things project normalcy and stability.

The weightlifting competition was not something I expected to win. It was a symbol of health, confidence, and strength in the quite literal sense. And it was my big fuck you to things I cannot control like a cancerous tumor in my fucking brain. The Oly lifts are a perfect blend of mental and physical challenge in response to something of which I am not in control.

My trainer changed my routine over the last week. I am still doing the clean, and I have been working on power lifts and other movements for the fun of it. I hit new personal records in the deadlift and front squat (all of which show that my training has paid off in that I am getting stronger in other areas). But I have felt a bit lost in the physical space.

I know this sounds dramatic. I know that at least it is not a brain cancer recurrence. I know that I am a silly 35 year-old who decided to take up some sport randomly and is now hurt that I can’t do what I want. I know. I know. I know.

And now I will transition to all of the good things that can come out of this.

I am now an athlete. An athlete without a sport, but still an athlete, and I have never been that before! I can check that box off the bucket list. Not that it was ever on the list in the first place.

I can now experiment and see what I want to do next. The doctor said no lifting heavy things over my head, but he did not say I couldn’t continue working on my pull-ups (still can’t do one, but I am training for it). He said I can do the power lifts, but they aren’t as exciting in my mind.

Maybe I will get into parkour? Maybe strongman? Maybe I will suddenly play adult soccer? Or learn gymnastics? Maybe I will go back to school and become an architect? Or a doctor?

This experience, where I learned to love something I never knew I would be interested in and be good at it, has made me realize that there are millions of things in the world that I have never thought about… and I might love and be good at.

I am so lucky to be alive and have the time and curiosity to search for these things and find my purpose in this world.

A photo posted by The Liz Army (@thelizarmy) on