Rebecca shares her experience of how exercise helped her to deal with fatigue after breast cancer treatment.
It felt like I'd been punched
I noticed a lump in November 2014. I have no family history, and was 35 years old, so after having examined it the doctor just said to keep an eye on it.
It wasn't until August 2016 that something changed. I suddenly felt like I'd been punched. The lump hurt, like I'd fallen on it. I got an urgent referral. A core biopsy confirmed it was cancer.
A mammogram showed two further lumps, and I was on the surgeon's table less than three weeks later.
I was completely floored
Chemo was hard. I had three rounds of EC chemotherapy and 12 rounds of Taxol, but because of all the blood tests I’d had for my operations, my veins couldn't deal with the needle so I had a chest port put in.
For the first week after each session I couldn't leave the house – I was completely floored. It felt like an achievement to walk from the bedroom to the bathroom or kitchen!
Being active helped with my fatigue
After radiotherapy I was put on Zoladex and Tamoxifen for 10 years. At first the hot flushes were really bad, and then fatigue hit.
I had been seeing a physiotherapist throughout my treatment, who recommended physical activity to help with the fatigue. The idea of getting up and being active when you're exhausted is the last thing you want to do! But the more I persevered, the more it helped.
If I was feeling tired from fatigue and went for a lie down, it often made me feel worse, whereas if I pushed myself to go outside or run up the stairs, I felt more energised.
Exercise can be daunting
It can be scary getting back into exercise, or starting for the first time, but it's easier than it seems. Sometimes you don't even realise you're doing it, like walking the dog or taking the stairs instead of the lift.
Once you're ready, try joining a gym or a class where there are others to support you. My gym buddies were there for me throughout my treatment, and encouraged me every step of the way when I eventually came back. They've been vital to my physical and emotional recovery.
Take small steps after treatment
I was extremely fit before I was diagnosed, but even for me it was a struggle getting back into anything after treatment. Chemotherapy particularly affected me.
I was doing my physio exercises, which is really important. I had an infection, and cording in my arm, but persevered when it was safe to do so. Completing those small steps was such an encouragement.
I then moved on to strengthening physio. Considering I’d barely been able to walk around my house at one stage, I started making it to the end of the road, then a mile, then a few miles. Even though I'd run marathons in the past, these small milestones were amazing!
Finding tips in BECCA
The benefits of psychologically and physically looking after yourself when recovering from cancer treatment cannot be underestimated. I'd signed up to Breast Cancer Care's Voices where I heard about BECCA, their app for people who are trying to move on after treatment. It's full of different 'cards' that direct me to really helpful places, like mindfulness pages and free meditations.
One card introduced me to mindful yoga for people with cancer. Yoga was something that had been recommended to me but I always worried that I wouldn't be able to bend this way or that.
I went to one class and loved it! The instructor made sure that everyone was safe and happy, and working within their own comfort zone.
Don’t push yourself
I wanted to rush back into running, but my physio advised me to take it easy. For a while I couldn’t do any upper-body work either, while my body was healing, so spin classes were a good start to build up my leg strength.
The key piece of advice I got was not to do anything more than 60% of what you're used to. I was desperate to turn up the dial when I felt I was getting better, but that would have sent me back again.
It's vital to listen to your body and not push yourself too far.
My buddies were vital
I remember the step class I went to with my gym buddies in October 2016, which was the last before my treatment began. As I left, I felt sad, not knowing what the future would bring. Then, last October, I went back and did the same class for the first time since treatment. I did a lot of modified moves, but psychologically it was a huge achievement. For me, I was back with my buddies. I was so proud of myself.
I’ve still got a long way to go, and it’s hard work, but I’ll get there.
Every woman deserves breast cancer-specific support once treatment ends. Join us and ask your politician to campaign for Care After Breast Cancer.