Nothing physical would indicate that Amber Lapshinoff is living inside of an entirely different body, but mentally, that’s exactly how she feels.
“It’s crazy. I don’t really know my body anymore to be completely honest,” says the 39-year-old.
“It’s strange and sometimes frustrating.” Lapshinoff’s body feels so foreign to her because, in early 2018, she began treatment for a 5 x 5 centimetre cancerous mass (the clinical measurement) in her left breast.
That February, during a self-examination, she noticed a change in her breast tissue. At the time she was working remotely as an environmental scientist. She came home to Airdrie and immediately saw her family doctor. Lapshinoff was diagnosed with stage 2A triple negative breast cancer, and a treatment plan was put in place.
What followed included more than 600 pills for chemotherapy, numerous rounds of radiation, a mastectomy on her left breast, and, in May 2019, follow-up reconstruction on both breasts using tissue from her buttocks, called IGAP flap surgery — all of which primarily took place at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary.
Before cancer, Lapshinoff was a self-described “workaholic” who travelled constantly for her physically and mentally demanding job in the field. She hadn’t taken a vacation in four years.
“I knew my body very well before. I knew how hard I could push it, what foods it liked, how much sleep I needed and exercise that was required. Now I don’t know what to expect,” she says.
As a result of her cancer treatment, Lapshinoff has experienced significant physical changes. After losing her hair from chemo, her formerly straight locks grew back curly; her left breast was removed and she now has reconstructed breasts that are entirely new; and, during treatment, a combination of the chemotherapy drugs, eating more to sustain her body and less overall activity led to a 30-pound weight gain.
“Physically, the changes I observed were the hardest for me. I find I’m more self-conscious of the weight gain than having lost my breast,” says Lapshinoff.
To tackle her weight gain and regain some vitality during treatment, Lapshinoff began attending a local gym but received stares due to her bald head and felt uncomfortable returning.
She consulted her nutritionist at the Holy Cross Centre who recommended the Alberta Cancer Exercise (ACE) program. ACE is a collaborative provincial program and study designed by researchers at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary. The U of A is the lead site for the ACE program, led by Dr. Margaret McNeely. It is a free, 12-week group fitness class specifically for those with, and recovering from, cancer and is funded by Alberta Innovates in partnership with the Alberta Cancer Foundation and others.
Lapshinoff began the program with 13 others in September 2018 at the U of C’s Thrive Centre. After an initial fitness assessment, the group met bi-weekly for an hour to do strength, flexibility and aerobic training with equipment like weights and bands in a special sterilized gym — safe for people recovering from cancer.
“It was amazing. I have more strength and more energy,” says Lapshinoff. “It helped with mental fatigue and joint pain. And no one judged me…they were just happy I made it to class.”
A scientist by trade, Lapshinoff enjoyed the chance to chat with the kinesiology researchers running ACE and ask specific questions about her new body, like what stretches were best for her left arm now that her lymph nodes had been removed?
ACE wasn’t just about fitness; it was also an uplifting community space.
“It’s like a safe zone,” says Lapshinoff. “I could go for coffee [with other participants] after the program, and you support each other because everyone can relate.”
Now, after her successful reconstruction surgery, Lapshinoff’s immediate focus isn’t on a goal weight but rather to take better care of herself, including giving her body the nutrients it needs to heal.
“After all the stress, drugs and worry, my body made it through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery and I’m so very thankful,” she says.
Despite those deep feelings of gratitude, Lapshinoff does have a lingering fear of cancer returning.
“With time, my body and I will become reacquainted, and I’m hoping the worry will ease,” she says.
She plans to continue with the ACE program’s follow-up maintenance classes when her doctor gives her the all clear. Returning to work is also a goal, but she says that this time she will remember to take a vacation every year. She’ll also continue to explore what the right diet and level of fitness is for her body today.
Mainly, Lapshinoff is excited to focus on the positive aspects of her life.
“If you can be positive and find a silver lining, I think it makes it harder for the cancer to grow,” she says. “My silver lining was that I got a butt lift and a boob job for my [upcoming] 40th birthday. How many people can say that?”