Bindu Panapalli spent a year and a half just trying to live as she underwent treatment for ovarian cancer in 2016 and early 2017.

Now, she’s back to trying to live normally, and part of that process is resuming regular exercise.

On Friday, she walked the Walt Disney World 10K as part of Team Cigna.

Panapalli still is not able to run much, but even walking a 10K is more than seemed possible when she finished the three surgeries and eight rounds of chemotherapy that it took to shut down the cancer.

“I could barely walk a half-mile because of the pain,” Panapalli said.

Always an active person, she remembers thinking about the annual Monument Avenue 10K during one of her many hospitalizations.

“I thought, ‘I want to do that kind of thing again,’” she told me recently.

But it wasn’t easy to jump back into physical activity. She suffered neuropathy, which resulted in bodily pain, numbness in the legs, weakness and fatigue.

Her husband, a marathon runner, helped her set up goals, and together they tracked her progress from a 22-minute mile down to an 18-minute mile, then to a 16-minute mile.

Even though she had just finished a round of chemo, she walked in the 2017 Monument Avenue 10K.

“My doctor said it was OK, as long as I felt like I could do it,” she said.

From there, her vocational coach through Cigna’s long-term disability program encouraged a continued dedication to activity, applauding her progress every time she was able to log 10,000 steps in a day.

“She coached me … to get my life back,” Panapalli said.

That same vocational coach entered Panapalli to be chosen to participate in the Disney 10K this weekend with the help of Achilles International, a nonprofit organization that works with people with disabilities to participate in athletic events.

“That was motivation for me,” she said.

Her participation is being sponsored by Cigna, which often partners with Achilles for physical training instruction.

Ryan Bruce, a manager in Cigna’s vocational coaching department, said physical accomplishments play a big role in restoring confidence when people have had major health setbacks.

“Who they are now might be very different than who they were before,” Bruce said.

One step in preparing for re-entry into the workforce is feeling good about personal accomplishments and the prospects for the future, he said. That’s why Cigna has sent people to about 35 races — 10Ks, half marathons, and the like — since it started doing vocational coaching in 2012.

For people like Panapalli, it’s a “capstone” to their hard work, Bruce said.

“She has worked really hard to get here,” Bruce said. And she will be helpful in sharing her experiences with other cancer survivors, “letting them know what’s possible, through the eyes of someone who’s done it,” Bruce said.

It’s safe to say that Panapalli is not your typical cancer survivor. A career scientist with a background in biochemistry, she is now part of a clinical trial studying the effects of diet and exercise on ovarian cancer recurrence.

She’s also volunteering at Massey Cancer Center, and is considering moving into a patient advocacy role.

“With ovarian cancer, it’s very easy to miss the symptoms,” Panapalli said. “I am helping people by talking to them about that.”

Also, she continues to push herself when it comes to exercise.

What motivates her to keep putting one foot in front of the other?

“The feeling that I want to get back to my normal life,” she said.

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Maria Howard is a group exercise instructor for the YMCA of Greater Richmond and the University of Richmond Weinstein Center. Her column runs every other week in Sunday Flair.

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