Breast Cancer - Cycling, Running
Having chemo? Fancy a run? For many of us, the answer is a firm “no!”, but in our latest blog, Alison fills us in on how her approach to running and cycling has helped her to cope with her treatment for breast cancer, and we think there’s a lot of wisdom in her approach to breaking things down into manageable chunks. Take a read, let us know what you think – and please do share!
Keeping fit and being a healthy weight have been important to me most of my adult life. As a child and in my teens I was hopeless at all sports (always one of the last to be picked for any team), but I spent hours doing ballet and tap, which kept me fit, flexible and gave me an appreciation of what my body could do. I wasn’t an especially good dancer, but I loved it.
My twenties saw me working hard and travelling a lot for my job, with not much time for exercise. Then as I turned 30, I discovered running and a female-only gym. Both these things made being fit accessible to me, and I had a light bulb moment when I realised I didn’t have to be good at something to enjoy it. I am not fast (my best half marathon was 2 hours 6 minutes), but what I don’t have in speed I make up for in determination. And probably most importantly, I discovered the massive endorphin rush, the so called “runner’s high”, that exercise gave me. What a great stress buster!
A few years later, as my right knee started to fail me, a friend suggested we cycle from London to Paris for charity to mark turning 40. Really???
Before I knew it, I’d bought a bike and was clocking up miles and enjoying the same benefits that running had given me. The charity ride was tough, but awesome and I’m now an avid cyclist. Through all of this, I developed a real appreciation of how amazing my body is. I may never have a flat stomach, but I love what my body can do for me.
The cancer bomb
So, it was a massive curveball when this January I was diagnosed with breast cancer. How could this be? How could this amazing body have cancer in it? Ok, I’ve had stress in my life and enjoyed plenty of wine, but cancer? Me?
I know some people feel their body has let them down when they get cancer, but I think it’s just really bad luck. I had no choice about getting cancer, but I can choose how I deal with it. My feeling is that how I treat my body is my best defence against the cancer coming back (my cancer is stage 2, grade 3). And I’m sure that being fit going in to breast cancer treatment has made a difference.
What cycling has taught me
I’m just about to have my last round of chemotherapy (number six of FEC-T), to be followed by radiotherapy and Tamoxifen. Treatment is tough, but I have been able to bring to it what I have learned from running and cycling, and this has really helped me.
Treatment plans are subject to change, but it’ll be about eight months in total, so, I broke it in to chunks, as I would any long run or bike ride, with five clear stages:
- Recovery, the new me, after eight months.
When I cycle a long bike ride, such as Ride London, I train for it for months to prepare. Strangely, this is now how I view the last 15-odd years of my adult life: building a physical and emotional resilience that I never knew I’d need until the cancer bomb was dropped.
When I’m on a ride, I’ve learned that breaking it down to goals gets me through. I didn’t invent this, it’s standard practice; your brain usually gives up before your body does in such events, so finding the psychological plan is key. My first goal may be getting to the feed station at mile 19 where I know there’ll be flapjacks and so on. Experience has also shown me that I get a dip midway on all long rides and runs. I start to tire or pain or injuries start to niggle, and the end is not in sight yet. In my head I desperately want to give up.
My treatment has been so very similar to this: one phase at a time, then one chemotherapy at a time, setting goals and rewards, and remembering that there will be a midway dip, but I’ll get through it.
After chemo round three I fell in to a huge dip, and I could happily have given up at that point. My hair was falling out, everything tasted of cardboard, my veins hurt and I had constant acid reflux and nausea. I was exhausted. Mentally and emotionally I was spent. But I took it one day at a time, just as I would have done on a tough run or ride.
On my good days, as I emerge from the side effects, I go for walks, do a spin class when I feel strong enough (I have to lie down for two hours afterwards!) and make sure I have goals that will give me a sense of purpose and achievement. As a result, during chemo I have done a Race For Life and cycled the Pink Ribbon Tour in London. I also ensure I have plans to see family and friends on my good days. These things exhaust me, but they fill my soul. I’ve learned to pace myself through cancer treatment just as I do through a run or bike ride.
My last chemo is next week. I know I’ll have a tough week where I lose myself to side effects, but one day at a time and it’ll be done. Then I can focus my energies on rebuilding myself ready for the next phase. That first finish line is almost in sight.
For many years, Alison was a fashion buyer. She now leads the creative photo studio for a large UK retailer. Working to to squeeze as much out of life as possible, she can often be found either on her bike, in a theatre, talking to her cat, at an art gallery, or having crazy fun with her niece and nephew. You can follow her blog here.
Alison kindly wrote another update for us.......
I write this post with a sense of achievement, euphoria and rather sore thighs and glutes. Last week I was on a women’s cycle training camp in Lanzarote, and it was a fabulous experience.
With my cycling group, I’m second from the left.
Keeping fit and active through out treatment was important to me, and I’m sure has supported my recovery both psychologically and physiologically. However, I know I’ve lost fitness, strength and stamina and I want to return to my fitness levels pre cancer. Especially important as I’m cycling Ride 100 this summer. Early last year I found Liz O’Riordan’s blog, a breast surgeon with breast cancer. Her story chimed with my own experience, it’s a great blog. She wrote about Tanja Slater’s training camp, and I was intrigued. I bookmarked the link, but felt I’d lost too much fitness to go.
With Liz O’Riordan after our final ride of the week.
Then in the last few weeks, I’ve kicked myself up the proverbial, and got back on my bike. One week I cycled 80 miles. This amazing body could still do it. All those spin classes have paid off, and I felt I had (just) enough confidence to jet off to Lanzarote, with hope in my heart and my bicycle in the hold.
42mph down that road. Whoa!!!
What an amazing week. The scenery is stunning, quite surreal in its volcanic splendour. The roads have no potholes and the drivers don’t seem to have a vendetta against cyclists. We were thirty female cyclists, mixed ability, being trained by five coaches, some of them ex-Olympians. Me, being coached by an Olympian?! The incredible places cancer has taken me. The coaches and other cyclists were hugely supportive. And sadly there were a few of us there who have had cancer. But, it proved once again, that getting cancer is not the end of your life.
I’m feeling rather chuffed at what I achieved last week:
- Cycled 6 days in a row (my bum is not impressed, especially after a bikini wax to get pool ready. Ouch!)
- My first ever time trial (I was one of the slowest, but a great benchmark to improve on)
- Cycled 230 miles
- New top speed on my bike – 42mph. The descent was exhilarating, and I thought “life is bloody wonderful” as tears of joy rolled down my cheeks.
- Took my bike, first time ever I’ve dismantled my bike and packed it. Thank goodness for YouTube videos as I’m pretty clueless.
- Learnt how to cycle in terrifying cross winds.
- Made some great new friends.
- Only ate chips once!
It’s caused me to reflect how amazing the human body can be, especially if we look after it (chips notwithstanding). What my treatment put my body through last year was, at times, brutal. A year ago, I was half way through chemotherapy and recovering from a bout of shingles. This year my body is rebuilding itself and taking me to places I hadn’t imagined. In this era of body shaming it’s easy to focus on the bits of our bodies we hate. I hate that my body got cancer, I don’t much like my thickening waist and potbelly (thanks Tamoxifen), and my hair is growing but not what it was. But, I love the life affirming places this amazing body can take me, and for that I’m hugely grateful.
Looking after mind and soul
Also helping me hugely is the counselling I am having at the Whittington (funded by Macmillan – where would we be without our amazing charities?) As time passes from diagnosis and treatment, it is easier to process what has happened, to see it more clearly and understand it. A process of acceptance and adaption.
I’ve been at work full time since January. It’s motivating to feel a sense of purpose and achievement again, but the fatigue sometimes comes crashing in and can really knock my confidence. But I’m learning how to rest, saying no and listening to what my body and mind need. Being kind to myself, and to others, is one of the greatest lessons that cancer has reinforced for me.