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Kicking ass during treatment

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 Breast Cancer - Jiu Jitsu

Rioghnach O'Leary

My name is Rioghnach and I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in February 2018 at the age of 30 years. For two years prior to this, I had been training on average five days per week in brazilian jiu jitsu and regularly competing in the sport at an amateur level. To augment my training, I also lifted weights and did cardio work outs. 

When I was diagnosed, the first thing I did was look for people on the internet with the same diagnosis as me who succeeded in maintaining an active life during cancer treatment. These people were hard to find. I did not find one jiu jitsu practitioner with a breast cancer diagnosis who continued training. I thought to myself - "I'm going to have to be that person".

Between April and July, I completed eight rounds of dose dense (every two weeks) chemotherapy. Through this, I managed to continue training, albeit at a slightly less intensity - I went four times a week instead of five and I sat out some sparring rounds. I also continued to lift weights and swim. I even managed to compete and win a jiu jitsu competition three days after a doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide infusion!  oleary2

I felt very healthy during chemotherapy and besides hair loss, I had very minimal side effects. I was slightly more tired but nothing debilitating. I was even prescribed one third of the steroids that a patient is usually prescribed due to my lack of side-effects.

I don't write this to brag, I write it to try to give hope to people who are active at the time of their diagnosis that they can continue being active, and that most importantly, in my opinion, staying active reduces side effects of cancer treatment. It helps with physical side effects and mental side effects. It takes your mind off things and gives you a sense that you can still kick ass no matter what you look like and how you might feel.


Although, in the main, the treatment I received from my medical team in the hospital I attend was excellent, I really was disappointed about the lack of input and encouragement on keeping active and eating a clean diet during chemotherapy. In my opinion, the medical team can be over concerned with the potential for infection to the point where you are dissuaded from engaging in any exercise. My opinion is to trust yourself and your own body. You know yourself if you are too tired or becoming unwell. In jiu jitsu people (including strangers) literally sweat all over you and it is the closest contact sport that exists. I never got an infection. I was never unable to receive a chemotherapy infusion. My blood counts were always perfect. I listened to my body and sat out if I was getting exhausted. I minded myself but pushed myself also. I found the balance between these too things.

I hope giving this account helps someone who is reading this. I would be delighted if I gave a bit of hope to someone at the start of this very strange adventure

On a final note, as I write this, I am now four weeks out from a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction (pre-pectoral) and axillary node clearance and I just did my first chin-up again yesterday. I plan to be back sparring in my gym by the end of the year!