Exercise, Cancer and Me. Part 2
The operation was a scary but successful procedure and we were all relieved to hear that the cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes or the rest of the breast. Generally, this means that there is no need for chemo and instead a more localised treatment, like radiotherapy, can be used. This was a huge relief.
Post-operation I was determined to get active again and back to full fitness. The 2nd day after the operation I decided to walk approximately a mile to the local shops and back. I walked slowly and had plenty of rest breaks, but was so proud to achieve my short walk. I promptly fell asleep when I got home and woke a few hours later to find I couldn’t lift my head! All the energy had drained out of me. My voice had retreated into a whisper and my body was as heavy as lead. I didn’t surface for 2 days and that was lesson number 1 learnt; don’t rush back into exercise too quickly.
Three weeks later the healthcare team confirmed all the cancer was gone! I celebrated with a 1 mile ‘run’ which took me 14 minutes but felt like heaven. Finally I was improving! Finally I was on the road to recovery! Finally I could get back to my old self again.
I still had 4 weeks of daily visits to the hospital for radiotherapy to come, but in the meantime I continued to gradually build back up my running and swimming (but not forgetting the important lesson of not rushing things too quickly!). Over the week prior to the radiotherapy I ran 10 miles and swam a kilometer.
At the beginning of May 2018 I started my 4 week stint of daily radiotherapy. Although the healthcare professionals were confident the cancer hadn’t spread, they wanted to make sure that they had eradicated any cancerous cells that might still lurking in the breast.
As I had been warned, the radiotherapy process became progressively more tiring. Essentially the radiation not only zaps the potential cancerous cells, it also zaps the healthy cells too, so the body is constantly trying to rejuvenate itself. Add to this a two hour plus round trip to the hospital and delays due to the radiation machines being old and in need of replacement, and it made for a quite exhausting over all experience.
I had been advised not to run or swim during radiotherapy because the skin can become quite raw and any chaffing or chemicals from the pool could cause further irritate it further. So, instead I combined my drive to the hospital with a cycle across the city. I hadn’t factored in quite how hilly it was it that area so it was a major test for the legs!
I was able to cycle a couple of times a week for the first two weeks before the tiredness caught up with me. When I wasn’t able to cycle I decided to go for a walk instead. It was incredibly challenging to push myself out for a walk when my body felt weighed down with the treatment. However I quickly learnt the oxymoron-like truth that the more active you are, the more energy you have. Despite the initial effort I had to put in to get moving, I would always come back feeling more energised. Each day I aimed to reach 10,000 steps – even if they were slow – as I knew this would invigorate me throughout the day.
The incredible power of staying active in the face of extreme fatigue was a real eye-opener for me. I have worked with people with chronic fatigue in the past and, academically, I was aware that exercise is an effective way to combat the illness. But having been through extreme tiredness myself I could not only have empathy with the condition but also witnessed the positive impact exercise can have on the condition.
I finished the radiotherapy in June 2018. The extreme tiredness stayed with me for another two months and it is only recently that I have started to build up my exercise again. I’ve had to re-learn lesson number again and reign myself back from rushing back into exercise too quickly (it’s a tough lesson for me to learn!). Although my fitness isn’t quite back to where I was before the operation, I am happy I can run a slow 4 miles and do press-ups again!
Being physically active is crucial for staying healthy while living with and beyond cancer. According to Macmillan, being physically activity after cancer treatment not only reduces side effects, such as swelling around the arm, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and mobility and weight changes, it also reduces the risk of dying from breast, bowel and prostate cancer. Furthermore it can reduce the recurrence of breast cancer and bowel cancer.
Despite these findings and the numerous other benefits of physical activity, it is estimated that only one-third of cancer survivors are achieving adequate levels of physical activity It is daunting to start a physical activity regime, especially when you may feel that your body has let you down or that you can no longer gauge what you can and can’t do. The exercise programme has to be personalised to individual circumstances and monitored carefully for when it’s appropriate to progress or reduce the level of exercise.
Moving forward I will be training with Canrehab to become a specialist instructor in cancer rehab. I am really excited about the prospect of helping other people with cancer to keep active and share my experience of Exercise, Cancer and Me.
Thanks for reading my blog. If you have experienced cancer and want advise on how to stay active please get in touch. Carolclarkpt@gmail.com