How I stayed active during chemotherapy

PUBLISHED ON: 24 June 2016

Liz is wearing a breast cancer care cycling vest

Liz O’Riordan, founder of the Breast Surgeon with Breast Cancer blog, explains how she managed to stay active during treatment for breast cancer.

Getting diagnosed with breast cancer was one of the biggest shocks of my life. I was 40 with no family history and was fit and healthy. In fact, one month before I was diagnosed I cycled up the Stelvio mountain pass in Italy, and was planning to race an Olympic distance triathlon.

How could I have breast cancer? The weekend between being diagnosed and starting chemotherapy I cycled 50 miles to the coast for breakfast and back with my local club, still in denial.

I wondered if chemotherapy would stop me exercising

Whenever I tried to find out whether it was safe to exercise during cancer treatment, the recurring theme was ‘Ask your doctor’. I’m a breast cancer surgeon, and I have never had any teaching in how much exercise patients should be doing. We all know that exercise is good for you, for many reasons, but as to the specifics of how much is too much – I didn’t know for certain. Most cancer websites suggest you should walk for 30 minutes every day, but many people don’t even do that when they are well.

I’ve only had a couple of sporty patients, and the look of sadness and frustration on their face when I suggested they stop training or reduce what they were doing was really hard to see. Both needed an implant reconstruction, and I had to ask them to stop running for one to two months to let the implant settle in case it moved and ended up sitting under their collarbone.

I found several sporty women with breast cancer through Twitter

They all told me to do what I felt my body could cope with. Some of them continued to race mountain bikes during chemo, while others carried on weight training. Exercise made them feel good, and they weren’t going to stop. If your doctor isn’t sporty, they might not understand how important exercise is to you, and how good it can make you feel.

Liz stood outside her chemotherapy ward with her bike and breast cancer care t-shirt

I walked every day for 30 minutes

The one thing everyone told me was to walk for 30 minutes every day. I did this with a neighbour. Although I swore at my alarm clock, just getting some fresh air, hearing the birds, being able to gossip and giving my mind a break from a few things was wonderful. I felt I’d earned the right to sit on the sofa for the rest of the day.

I did gentle exercise to maintain my fitness

During my good weeks, I did gentle weight training in the gym to try to keep up the fitness I’d developed before diagnosis. I went swimming, and cycling with friends. I even cycled to three of my chemo sessions, which made me feel fantastic. For that hour I would forget I had cancer and just be ‘Liz’. I started doing the local parkrun (more of a slow jog) with my husband. The other runners were fantastic and cheered me on. It was great to do something with my husband and it brought us closer together during what was quite a traumatic time.

I even did a triathlon

I was even able to do my local sprint distance triathlon halfway through chemotherapy. I had to persuade my tri club to let me do it. They were (rightly) concerned in case I became ill on the course. I promised them that my aim was to finish it and not to race, and that I’d be sensible and stop if I felt unwell. They were great, and understood that just completing the triathlon would be a huge achievement for me. It was blooming hard, I’m not going to lie to you, but I did it. Crossing the finish line and getting my medal, then seeing my husband crying with pride, was one of the best days of my life.

My advice to any of you who are sporty is to try to keep it up during treatment.

You can achieve far more than you think you can, and your body will know what it is and isn’t capable of. Let's encourage others to join us and show that these girls (and boys) can.

If you’re looking to get back into gentle exercise, join us for a 5, 10 or 20 mile Pink Ribbonwalk and help us be there for women with breast cancer. You’ll make miles of marvellous memories and it’ll be so much more than just a day out.

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