Jo was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in summer 2014, aged 39. She has since undergone a hysterectomy, had chemotherapy, and been on an angiogenesis inhibitor drug. Following a recurrence in summer 2017, Jo had further chemotherapy and is now on a PARP inhibitor with the aim of managing her cancer.
Exercise was an important part of life before my diagnosis - I was committed to my regular fix of exercise, be it running, cycling, swimming or a gym session. It was a welcome escape from the whirlwind of daily life, juggling work commitments and a young family.
A diagnosis of ovarian cancer turned my world upside down. Once a treatment plan was determined, concerns immediately surfaced around how I was going to function day-to-day and get the boys to school; it felt indulgent to even ask how treatment might impact on my ability to exercise.
I was relatively lucky when it came to the side effects of chemo. Yes, I lost my hair, had an overwhelming metallic taste for days after every dose, lost the feeling in my fingers from time to time, had aches and pains after a chemo hit and the fatigue, but on the whole I didn't fair too badly. My chemo was administered every three weeks, and towards the end of the second week in the cycle I was able to exercise to a degree. Even just being able to manage the half-hour walk to the local hospital was a satisfying achievement and a sign that the chemo ‘hangover’ was subsiding. But chemo brought with it constant anxiety around how much constituted “over doing it”.
Taking part in group exercise in a darkened spin studio did me a world of good; I could dictate how hard I worked depending on how I felt and it provided me with some refreshing normality in a world that had become dominated by hospital appointments and updates on the unknown to well-wishers. Whilst I couldn't swim immediately post-surgery, I got back to it as soon as I was allowed, being underwater felt like escapism.
Parkrun was, and continues to be, my other savior. I'd got the parkrun bug a year prior to my diagnosis and sought to take part in the Harrogate parkrun when the kids' social diaries allowed. A 5K timed course, just a 10 minute jog from home, combined with the opportunity to natter with friends, was the perfect start to a Saturday. It became all the more important when the infamous parkrun bench where they did the pre-run briefing was where my husband and I decamped after having been given the devastating news of my diagnosis at the nearby hospital. I can't recall what was going through my mind that day, other than disbelief, and the fear of the unknown. As a result, it has become even more poignant every time I'm lucky enough to find myself listening to the pre-run briefing from that bench or running by it on the course. Four years on and I'm still far from my pre-diagnosis parkrun personal best, but for me it's become so much more than that. The parkrun community and all it stands for is the ideal way to introduce some discipline to regular exercise, and having others around me provided much needed motivation and reassurance.
Physical exercise has played such a big role for me in emotionally coping with cancer during treatment and beyond. If it has some physical benefits in terms of managing the cancer then that's a bonus. Turning up for pre-chemo blood tests in my gym kit felt like a small victory, proof that cancer couldn't take the pleasure of exercise away from me. My fitness is something over which I have control and maintaining a decent level of fitness can only be a good thing if I’m faced with surgery or treatment in the future.
As a cancer patient it’s hard to know what it’s sensible to attempt by way of exercise during treatment, particularly as the side effects of treatment can differ day to day, not to mention other factors such as recent surgery, compromised immunity, having a portacath fitted and guilt about exercising when signed off work on sick leave. Initiatives promoting exercise amongst those affected by cancer is a welcome development, helping people who enjoy exercise to establish what is appropriate given their fitness levels and treatment regime as well as guiding those who are less active to build their fitness.