Exercise, Cancer and Me
The benefits of exercise are far reaching and for a long time I have enjoyed running marathons, practising yoga and doing weight training, amongst other things. There are a multitude of studies showing the health benefits of physical activity. For example, this study found for every 2 hours a week a woman spends doing moderate to vigorous activity, her risk of breast cancer drops by 5%. During marathon training I would spend up to 5 hours a week doing aerobics activity, so surely that gave me adequate protection?
Three years ago I went to the hospital about a lump in my breast which the doctor dismissed as ‘being too small to be anything’. By the end of 2017 the lump started to feel bigger so I was persuaded to go back to my GP. I had a number of invasive, and sometimes painful, tests. While waiting for the results I reasoned that as I have no family history of cancer, was fit and ate a healthy diet I wouldn’t be at risk of cancer and this was all routine. I felt fine and, besides, I’d lived with this lump for at least 3 years. I carried on running and doing yoga to keep the anxious thoughts at bay.
On Tuesday the 13th February my test results came back. To say I was devastated, shocked or terrified underplays the tsunami of emotion that swept over me at hearing the words ‘its cancer’. My husband was working away at the time so I spent the 2 days before his return sobbing, unable to sleep and in an emotional heap. Exercise was the furthest thing from my mind.
According to Cancer Research UK 1 in 8 women and 1 in 870 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime. It’s the most common cancer amongst females in the UK, with around 54,800 new cases in 2015. Thankfully survival rates are increasing all the time and since the early 1970s, female breast cancer mortality rates have decreased by around a third (32%) in the UK. Around two-thirds (65%) of women diagnosed with breast cancer in England and Wales survive their disease for twenty years or more (2010-11).
Having led a physical activity campaign for Breast Cancer Care in 2011 I was aware of the importance of keeping active during and after cancer, even when it’s the last thing you are thinking about. According to Macmillian, breast cancer survivors who regularly exercise have a 40% lower risk of the cancer returning. I had also spent a lot of time working with mental health and exercise. It was cold comfort, but I knew that getting active would help me through. Through tears, anguish and frustration I ran and ran some of the fastest times I had managed for years.
A few days after my diagnosis it was the Thorpe Park half marathon. I been
extremely lucky to have won a place in the race through my running club, Runnymede Runners, and I wasn’t going to squander it. After all, I didn’t know when I would be able to race again. I knew I was in good shape (I had been training for a 30 mile race, the Canalathon, in March) despite carrying a slight niggle and was determined to run my heart out. And I pushed myself hard. Although my body hurt the pain was a relief and mirrored the pain I felt inside. I wanted to feel my muscles burn and the blood pumping and, most of all, to feel truly alive.
I finished the race in 1 hour 46 mins, but the usual post-workout elation didn’t come. When I finished the race the knowledge the cancer was there was still with me. But I felt I had stuck up a metaphorical 2 fingers to the cancer at least.
The weeks that followed were filled with further invasive tests and agonising waits for test results. Finally I was given an operation date of March 22nd, 3 days before the Canalathon I had planned to run. I decided to approach it like a taper to a marathon and make sure I was in the strongest place possible before the operation. I drank lots of water, stopped drinking alcohol altogether and focused on getting good quality, non-processed nutrition. Consulting with my dear friend and fellow exercise therapist we devised a pre-hab exercise regime. I was aware that I would lose upper body strength, so we focused on upper body resistance work, particularly focusing on my arms, lats and chests. In addition I added swimming and yoga. The morning of the operation I got up early and did 2 cheeky sets of full press-ups. I was ready to fight this cancer.
Thanks for reading my blog. Look out for part 2 about building fitness back up after a lumpectomy operation.