Exercise when I have cancer, are you mad?
Anyone who has been through or watched someone go through cancer treatment will know how physically and mentally challenging it can be, pushing the body and mind to its absolute limits. That’s even before considering a pregnancy, newborn or loss.
So adding exercise into the mix therefore seems completely crazy, and pretty low on the list of ‘to do’s’. ‘How can I possibly find energy, let alone motivation to exercise!’ I said to my consultant when she first suggested I get out and about. I could barely walk down the stairs and my mind was most certainly elsewhere.
But even since my treatment in 2018, more and more evidence has emerged about the benefits of exercise before, during and after cancer treatment. So much so, the guidance now for most is to avoid inactivity altogether and keep moving as often as possible.
‘But you can’t exercise, you’re ill!’ said my mum as I headed to the park run two cycles of chemo in (note, I walked, slowly). I was determined not to loose all control of my body, and exercise was my control. Especially following the loss of our baby boy Jacob.
But I wasn’t wrong - while it was questioned in the past, it is now widely agreed that exercise is safe, feasible and beneficial for those undergoing cancer treatment. (1) Regardless of what cancer you have and the care plan you’re given, by being physically active you may be able to reduce the chances or severity of some of the side-effects you experience during treatment. (1)
Granted, when you are pregnant or have recently given birth, some exercises you will need to avoid, but overall, movement is safe and effective once approved by your healthcare professional.
Keeping physically active during your treatment may have a positive effect on aspects of your physical and mental wellbeing including: (1)
Improving overall physical functioning
Reducing fatigue levels
Improving or maintaining muscle strength
Improving or maintaining bone health
Reducing chances of cancer recurrence
I must admit, that was my last park run for a while, the treatment and surgery did eventually get the better of me and I was pretty much housebound for the next eight weeks. I had the occasional steroid induced energy surge when I could just about make it to the shop, but that was rare. However, once I finished my treatment, particularly my chemo, my energy levels started to return.
And so as my energy levels rose, so did my activity. I walked, and walked some more. Started to practice yoga, did a bit more. Tried a gentle jog, joined a small group exercise class. My recovery time after exercise got shorter, my daytime naps reduced, I started to feel more like ME. Having been extremely fit before the diagnosis I became frustrated at times that I wasn’t able to do what I could before, but I reminded myself how far I’d come. Recovery is a slow process, so I saw this as an opportunity to build my body up the right way, correcting any muscle imbalances, building my core after a second pregnancy, working from the inside out and increasing my stamina.
But what about exercising before you even start treatment? You may have seen the news recently that the NHS will begin prescribing intensive exercise to all newly diagnosed cancer patients. Pre-treatment rehabilitation or ‘prehab’ aims to prepare patients for surgery, chemo or radiotherapy. Getting their bodies and minds into the best shape possible before they even start. It may feel daunting, but I completely support this, knowing now how exercise has benefited me since cancer.
Seeing first-hand the effects of exercise on my recovery, I wanted to do more to help others who were living with and beyond cancer. Those who had been active before their diagnosis but didn’t know where to go next when it came to exercising, or those who just wanted to get started. So I started studying to become a Cancer and Exercise Rehabilitation Specialist - a Personal Fitness Trainer with a lot of extra knowledge about how cancer and treatment effects the body and impacts exercise. I’ve been working with clients face to face and virtually for nearly two years now – some living with or beyond cancer, others who have family members affected by the disease – but I aim to not only give them good advice on how to keep active, but also a safe space to escape the world of cancer and regain a bit of control over their body and mind.
Since lockdown when life and work became very virtual, my business has expanded to support those living with and beyond cancer across the UK and even further afield, online. So much so that in 2020 I launched a series of online recovery courses for those who have completed active treatment for breast or gynaecological cancers. I also run a monthly online membership offering three weekly group classes, nutritional advice and monthly chats with guest speakers discussing all things wellbeing and cancer.
My programmes aim build participants back up in the safest and most effective ways following their cancer and treatment. But also aim to give members the confidence to re-join more mainstream exercise to continue their journey back to fitness.
Sarah was treated for cervical cancer in pregnancy in 2018, and in 2019 launched her fitness business ‘Get Me Back’ www.getmeback.uk. She has completed her CanRehab Level 4 Cancer & Exercise Rehabilitation qualification and is also a Breast Cancer Rehab Coach. She works virtually and face to face in the Surrey countryside. Those looking to participate in an exercise programme can be referred to Sarah by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
T: 07742 442137
S: @getmebackuk (Insta, Facebook, YouTube)
1. ACSM: Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Patients and Survivors