Staying fit during chemo
Breast Cancer - Cycling, Triathlon
I was the girl at school who avoided PE and games. During my 20 years of training to become a breast surgeon, I would join a gym every time I moved hospital and never go. I only started cycling when my husband bought a bike and did my first triathlon at the age of 40. Getting diagnosed with breast cancer was a huge shock. I had cycled up the Stelvio literally a month before. How on earth could I have cancer? Finding out I’d be starting chemo within a fortnight was even more of a shock.
I wanted to try and keep active during those five months, but didn’t know what to do, or what I could do. None of my doctors or nurses mentioned exercise. All the big charity websites said to ask your doctor for advice. Well, I’m a doctor and I’ve never had any training about that sort of thing. In the end, it was other patients who advised and inspired me.
Patients told me that the single most important thing I could do was to walk for a minimum of half an hour a day, even on those really, really bad days. They told me it would reduce the side effects of chemo and make me feel better. I would swear at them some mornings as I struggled to get out of bed, stopping to spit and retch every couple of steps, but I was glad they made me do it. We now know that exercise is recommended to treat fatigue, prevent muscle loss and also improve your mood – walking every day did all of that for me.
On my two good weeks I wanted to ramp it up a bit, and again, patients came to my rescue. I found women who were cycling, running and even racing in their early good weeks. As long as I felt good, there was no reason why I couldn’t stay fit. However, I knew not to go crazy. My body needed the strength to recover from every chemo cycle, to stay strong for my upcoming surgery. That was more important than trying to run 5k at my normal time.
I went to the gym and did a gentle weights program once or twice a week – mainly squats, lunges, core and TRX work – all to stop me from wasting away from spending most of my time sleeping on the sofa. I did park runs when I could – and yes, I was about 10 minutes slower than normal, but I didn’t care. People came up to me who’d had cancer themselves (I was bald so it was pretty obvious I’d had it too) and gave me a hug – the sense of community kept me coming back each week. I even persuaded my local club to let me enter their pool-based sprint tri halfway thru chemo, after promising that I would be sensible. I was one of the last to finish, but that didn’t matter. The sense of achievement was amazing.
It took two months to recover from my surgery, and radiotherapy wiped me out. But once my treatment had finished, I started to wonder - what could my body do now?
If people don't laugh at your goals, they're not big enough
I had signed up the year before to ride the Maratona with my husband in three months’ time, and went on a last-minute cycling camp to get some emergency miles in. It was there I met Tanja Slater who told me how she’d trained her Dad to race triathlons after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. With her backing, I signed up to do Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire the following year, which would be one year after finishing breast cancer treatment.
Back to the beginning
And that's where it got hard for me. I had to throw away all my ideas about training and ignore all the programs I had read that tell you what to do and when. I had to listen to my body, and most importantly my coach, and accept that there would be a lot of very, very slow jogging, cycling and swimming. Thanks to chemo, my heart rate would sky-rocket with the gentlest exercise and I had no real aerobic fitness to speak of. It was so frustrating seeing how slow I was on Strava, and in the end I stopped looking at the data. I had to stop comparing post-cancer me with pre-cancer me and learn to just enjoy being outside on my bike instead of staring at my computer chasing a heart rate zone.
Not plain sailing
There were a few set-backs along the way. I got a nasty bout of bronchitis after an open water swim that meant no training for 5 weeks. I also went back to work two months before the 70.3, so had to cope with the physical exhaustion of working again, as well as a two-hour commute on top of training. I hadn’t done a single brick session. I hadn't really done muc swimming. Our plan was to get me round the course, safely, without breaking my body or my immune system. Speed could come next year.
Nothing new on race day
Thanks to 'chemo brain', I forgot my socks and brought my bike shoes instead of my tri shoes. Luckily my husband had a spare pair I could borrow. To top it all off, the weather was forecasting the hottest day of the year so far - 29-30C by the afternoon. I was planning on running in a neon pink wig for charity. I would melt! Had I brought my running cap that I always wear? No. Cue a last-minute dash to Tescos to buy a baseball cap.
Swim, Bike, Run and Done
I got really emotional standing on the pontoon before the swim start and started crying – crying for what I’d been through and for what I was about to do. A lovely woman next to me gave me a hug and then suddenly we were wading into the water. The water was lovely and warm and I actually enjoyed the swim, and was surprised at how quickly the time went. I knew the bike course was technical, and I needed to finish in 4 hours to give me 3 hours to complete the run. It got hotter and hotter, and the hills seemed steeper and steeper. The volunteers were amazing – giving us bottles of water to pour over ourselves, but I was glad to get back to T2, right on time.
By By now it was 30 C, and I had to run a half-marathon. I had 3 hours to do it, and it would take me all of that time. It was a hilly three laps, and the crowds were amazing – cheering and singing and spraying us with water. My husband had managed to find Tanja, who had come to cheer me on, and it was great to see them cheering on every lap wearing their Morvelo F*CK CANCER socks.
now it was 30 C, and I had to run a half-marathon. I had 3 hours to do it, and it would take me all of that time. It was a hilly three laps, and the crowds were amazing – cheering and singing and spraying us with water. My husband had managed to find Tanja, who had come to cheer me on, and it was great to see them cheering on every lap wearing their Morvelo F*CK CANCER socks.
Finally, after 3 hours and 3 minutes, I turned the final corner to run down the red carpet - I had bloody done it!