How I Stayed Fit During Chemo - Liz O’Riordan

pink ribbonGetting 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.