This time last year, I was a fit and healthy 30 year old PE teacher, or so I thought. Whilst teaching a year 9 javelin lesson, I noticed an uncomfortable ache in my right breast. I put it down to getting older! A couple of weeks later when running on a treadmill, I had a similar ache. Not pain, just ache. Again, I thought to myself ‘I need some new sports bras.’ On Wednesday 28thMay 2018 whist on holiday in Greece with my mum and brother, I found a lump in my right breast whilst applying after sun. I did not know it at the time but this lump would change my life in many ways.
I’m sure when you read that I’m a PE teacher that you made assumptions about how fit I was. Yes I was fit but not super fit and to be honest I spent so much time concentrating on getting teenage girls active that apart from going to the gym, skiing 3 times a year, the odd fun run for charity and walks with my dog I wasn’t super active. It was my job, when I was not teaching sport I liked to do my own thing. Skiing was (and still is) very important to me and most of the time I would be thinking about getting ‘ski fit’ to get the most out of my ski holidays.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30 was devastating. I have likened it to running into a brick wall at full speed and you keep running into this wall for days, weeks and months after. In the early days, my mum got me up and out of bed and made sure I got out of the house. Most days we would walk along the beaches of North Wales with the dogs, some days it was the last thing I wanted to do but my mum knew that I should be out of the house and active. As much as I like going for a stole with the dogs and my family, I knew this wasn’t going to cut it activity wise as I didn’t get a ‘buzz’ out of just walking and I was used to being very active in my job.
A quick google search about my options for keeping fit during cancer treatment was not inspiring. I found some dodgy videos on YouTube that were not inspiring and although I found nothing that said ‘you must not exercise’, I didn’t find anything that said ‘Yes, go for it!’ I then found Treksock and I attended one of their ‘Meet and Move’ days. The specialist Cancer Rehab Personal Trainer was brilliant and he gave me the confidence to adapt my usual routine in the gym to make sure my PICC line wasn’t going to be put at risk. I renewed my gym membership and downloaded the BBC’s couch to 5k app. I was going to start running. I was a decent runner in school but since then I had not ran particularly far or hard. I would do 20 minutes on the treadmill in the gym as a warm up for going on machines but that’s about it and as long as I was fit enough to run a 1500m race with my year 9 girls to motivate them I wasn’t really interested in running.
The first time I went back into the gym was a month after surgery and the day before my first chemo. I cried as I ran on the treadmill to the week 1 recording of C25K. I was elated that I could still run but terrified about what I was going to face on chemo. One thing that was certain is that after that 30 minute session on the treadmill I felt better than I had since I was diagnosed. I soon decided that I was going to venture outdoors to run, the C25K app kept me sensible as it made me take it easy as I think without it I would have pushed myself too hard. I ran using the C25K app at least 3 times a week right up until the end of chemo number 4. My first Park Run was done during cycle 3 and I signed up to a 30 mile challenge during chemo number 4 as well as a virtual run to raise money for breast cancer. It was around this time that I found ‘my people’ on social media and I felt less crazy for wanting to cope with cancer treatment through exercise. I found several people on Twitter, who like me believed in keeping physically active through treatment. A couple of weeks later, CancerFit was launched and it helped so much connecting with like minded people.
I have cried whilst running more times than I care to remember. Most of the time I cried from the sheer relief that I could run. Sometimes, it was more than that. Although I used the cold cap during my chemo, my hair was thinning rapidly. One day, during a rainy day in October after chemo number 3 I was on a treadmill and I looked down to see masses of my hair just lying on the treadmill. This absolutely broke my heart. Another time, towards the end of chemo I didn’t feel that I could run so I was just walking on the treadmill and a really fit ‘gym person’ (we all know they type I’m talking about!!) came on the treadmill next to me and started running glamorously and effortlessly. That used to be me and at that point I was so far removed from the girl that could do that it was heart breaking. I was happy with what I was doing physical activity wise but at that moment I could think ‘why did this happen to me?’ and that was so upsetting.
Towards the end of chemo, I could not run. The effects of Docetaxol were so debilitating on my bones and muscles and I was weak, looking back I was physically, mentally and emotionally broken. Again, my mum saved me. She would make me walk with her most days, even if it was just around the retail park which was our go to destination after bad chemo days – she knows that retail therapy will get me walking! We managed to walk up a small mountain during chemo number 5, that was hard but it was a great achievement.
I needed things to aim for. As a PE teacher, I know the importance of long and short-term goals so I decided I needed to set some. What is going to get me motivated to be active again? Well, I thought to myself – what usually motivates me to get active? The only answer was skiing. The next day I had an appointment with my oncologist before my penultimate chemo so I asked what were the chances of me going skiing to Italy for New Year, 2 and a half weeks after my last chemo. To my surprise (after a bit of persuasion), he said I could go! This became my short-term goal. My long-term goal was entered at 3am during steroid induced insomnia – The Cheshire Triathlon in May. Both of these goals were so important to my recovery. Although I was so excited to ski, I was nervous, especially considering that my legs had lost so much muscle atrophy during the last 3 chemo’s that even walking slowly up the mildest of inclines was a challenge.
Skiing was great. At times it was hard, actually skiing was relatively easy but walking up hills absolutely killed me! At one point during the holiday, I did get a chairlift down the mountain and get a someone to pick me up to take me back to the hotel as my legs were really feeling it. So did my perfectly fit younger brother and friend so I don’t think I was the only one feeling the burn after a couple of days on the slopes! Every slope I skid down felt like I was like saying F**k you cancer!
My next goal was my triathlon. This, I feared was not going to be as satisfying or as fun as skiing! In January during radiotherapy, I signed up to YouGoTri’s ‘Tri January’ which helped me significantly with getting my fitness back as I had a chart, stickers and used social media as motivation. It’s not been easy, at times the last thing I want to do is cycle, run or swim! I lost the plot exercise wise over Easter as I went skiing and then on an all-inclusive sun holiday and found it hard to get back into a routine so my training didn’t go quite as planned. As I was doing the triathlon on Sunday and there were people passing me on the bike I just thought “They probably weren’t on chemo this time 5 months ago and having radiotherapy 3 months ago.” Doing the triathlon was a massive confidence boost (I over took several people on the swim – once a competitive PE teacher, always a competitive PE Teacher! I haven’t ruled out doing another one but for now I need to focus on my swimming. I am doing the one mile Great North Swim in Lake Windermere next month. I watched my friend do it the day before I went to my GP to get the lump checked out and I promised myself that cancer or no cancer that I would do it this year. It will be an emotional day for myself and my 3 friends, before cancer I would not have had the confidence to do it but now I feel I can do anything I set my mind to!
As for fitness goals, my main goal now is to be content with what I’m doing and to try new things. I have a 10K race for life at the end of next month which will mark exactly a year since I was diagnosed. That again, will be an emotional day. I have recently accepted a new job and am moving out of teaching into the ski industry. I’m hoping that now I don’t have to spend all my time focusing on keeping teenagers fit that I can focus more on myself, the 3 months away skiing a year for my new job is a good place to start J