Exercise. Even the word makes me puke in my mouth a little at times. Let’s be honest, a lot of us have the same reaction, even those that are in the best of health. Now, let’s apply that term ‘exercise’ to the 150,000 people in Ireland living with and have survived cancer this very day. A toxic drug that literally kills your body, pumps through your system, and now you have to go jog the block. It seems daunting, un-doable and pretty much the last thing you could ever possibly want to do. Trust me I have been at every end of the spectrum. There was a time I couldn’t open my eyes without feeling nauseous or lift my bald head off the pillow, wondering if I have actually morphed into the couch, and times I’ve been able to box squat five days after chemo and felt better than I ever have. Cliche Queen here but it’s such a rollercoaster; I wake up everyday not knowing how I will feel, sometimes just wanting to write the day off as a failure, turn over in the bed and try again the next day.
I was always sporty enough, played Camogie, rumbled and tumbled, and when I realised to play it competitively was not an option for the time being it was a big blow to my confidence, spirit, drive, call it what you want. It defeated me. Aches and pains here and there stopped me in my tracks; bone pain, infections, mental turmoil- there were so many obstacles ready to just stop me. I retracted into myself, wanted to wrap myself in bubble wrap and lie covered in three blankies on the couch forever more because, you know ‘I have to take it easy’ and I couldn’t ‘push myself’. I had a stent somewhere in my ureter, an alright haemoglobin level and an overproduction of pity.
It could only last so long. For my sins I am not very good at sitting by and not doing the absolute most to fight an unpredictable disease with unpredictable results. I have to put a good fight up against this mothafucka, and for me that includes a whole rounded approach. A fantastic diet, a lot of attention to my mental health, a LOT, enough laughter to the point of my stomach hurting (side effect- abs.. Finally a positive side effect), and exercise. Basically I need to put my body in the best possible position to come out on top. It doesn’t help being pumped full of chemicals every couple of weeks but hey, who said it was going to be easy. After jumping on all the bubble wrap, very satisfying, I put my thinking cap on. I had to reassess my capabilities and alter my exercise regime to that. I wasn’t going to be clashing the ash, getting into almighty tackles and jumping for the ball, but there was a whole other world of exercise that could provide my body with what it craved.
There are a lot of side effects of chemotherapy. Trust me, when you are getting the printed list on two A4 pages that rattles off side effects like a shopping list, it’s nearly laughable. What, I thought becoming Baldy McBaldson was the only thing. Well…. Where do I begin… you have the standard fatigue, nausea, bruising, mouth sores, insomnia, flu like symptoms, bowel problems. Then you have the more unusual ones like peripheral neuropathy where you lose feeling in your hands and feet, osteoporosis, muscle pain, joint pain. With all those things in your way, the first reaction is to do as little as possible. But what if I told you that regular exercise not only reduced side effects but also minimised the chance of cancer returning. Say whhhaaaaaaat. I kid you not.
I don’t want to bore you with research studies but there is one I’d like to share with you because I want to show that this is not just a load of fluff, another hail mary in the war against cancer.
“Effect of Low-Intensity Physical Activity and Moderate- to High-Intensity Physical Exercise During Adjuvant Chemotherapy on Physical Fitness, Fatigue, and Chemotherapy Completion Rates: Results of the PACES Randomized Clinical Trial.”
This is legitimate research being conducted by educated intelligent researchers with peer reviewed papers published in reputable sources like the Journal of Clinical Oncology. This study called PACES (Physical exercise during Adjuvant Chemotherapy Effectiveness Study) trial, performed in The Netherlands, included 230 randomly chosen women diagnosed with breast cancer who were to receive chemotherapy post surgery. They were split into three exercise categories:
- 76 women in the OnTrack programme; a moderate to high intensity resistance and aerobic exercise programme. 2 sessions per week supervised by trained physical therapists. Women were encouraged to keep physically active 5 days per week and to keep an activity diary.
- 77 women in Onco- Move programme; low intensity programme that women performed at home. Trained nurses encouraged women to do at least 30 mins activity 5 days a week. Women also kept an activity diary.
- 77 women weren’t encouraged to do any exercise and followed no exercise programme.
The women were tested for muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness, fatigue, general quality of life and frequent questionnaires a) before they were assigned to a group, b) six months into chemotherapy and c) six months after chemotherapy has ceased.
It was found that the women on both exercise programmes compared to the women on no exercise regime showed:
- Less nausea
- Increased physical ability in daily tasks
- Less pain
- Less fatigue
- Better muscle strength
- Better fitness levels
- Less recovery period before returning back to work.
The study showed that Women diagnosed with breast cancer who followed either a moderate- or low-intensity exercise program while being treated with chemotherapy had less fatigue, nausea, and pain, as well as better physical fitness than women who didn’t exercise during chemotherapy.
Other studies with similar results include:
- Randomized Controlled Trial of the Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Physical Functioning and Quality of Life in Lymphoma Patients.
- Randomized Controlled Trial of Resistance or Aerobic Exercise in Men Receiving Radiation Therapy for Prostate Cancer.
There are so many studies and man hours of research that are all showing the same result; exercise is so good for you. Keeping a healthy body weight, reducing chance of clots (which I am at a big risk of), reducing risk of heart disease. The list goes on.
So, armed with this knowledge, a new desire and my strict No.1 rule of surrounding myself with bright positive people, what would be my next step? It was actually a pretty easy decision. I contacted an old friend, one that I was friends with for years through school but life gets in the way and suddenly ye haven’t chatted in years. My sisters go to the local gym where he is assistant manager and were always raving about Conor, and then it finally clicked- it was Conor Byrne. Well lads, if you tell me I am always happy and positive, you should meet Conor. I have nothing on Conor when it comes to motivation, positivity, drive, devotion, passion (I actually have the Thesaurus open spitting out nouns to accurately describe Conor). For me to reach out to somebody and say; I am unfit, I have health problems coming out of my ears (my ears are actually grand… about the only part of me), I have cancer, now help me to be the absolute fittest and able I can possibly be, and don’t go easy, was terrifying. I had to acknowledge the setbacks bestowed upon me, but by doing this I was already on the way to combat them. Every soldier needs a commander. From the moment I chatted to Conor I knew he was extremely equipped with the knowledge, energy and spirit required to help me.
‘For me what I do is life changing, working in the fitness industry for the last 8 years and as a personal trainer for the last 5 has opened my eyes to the world we live in, the people and cultures and it has allowed me to travel in search of information, education and knowledge’.
I was in Conor’s class all through secondary school. He was always so sporty. In T.Y while the rest of us were puffing at the bottom of the hill he’d already be on his way down. There was no point in marking him in P.E because he’d be hanging from the rafters. ‘I always had a passion for sport growing up. Every night of the week my mother would have to drop me off to a pitch somewhere for training, or a hall for martial arts, or call me in from kicking football with my friends.’
School finished and we all went our own ways. We lost touch. Gosh, never would I have guessed the last time I seen him that our next encounter would be through this blog. I don’t think about that though because there’s no room for ‘what if’s’ or sadness. And I know Conor would agree with me. Face and combat the issue ahead of you today, learn, better yourself. Such is life, I was delighted when Conor had the time to help me out. He’s a very busy man, has built a great relationship with his clients and doesn’t seem to have a spare moment in the day.
‘Currently I am the assistant manager in a busy leisure club and also run my own personal training gym which has grown and grown more than I ever could have wished thanks to the continued support of all my clients. The combined jobs leave me working long hours constantly, but if you love what you do well then you can’t really call it work’.
The first time I had a personal training with him, I was nervous, very nervous. I imagined fainting, puking, dying. He made the environment so chilled out; it was literally like having a friend beside me. I hopped up on the bike, chatted away, he listened intently to any health concerns- I could see his mind churning, adjusting his plans to suit my capabilities of the day. That’s the great thing about Conor- he will ask each time how I am feeling and adjust my work out accordingly. Within my capabilities, but still, making sure it hurts just a little. After all, if it was easy we’d all be at it. His focus is to teach me different techniques I can bring forward.
At ConorByrneFitness he doesn’t just show me one programme to which I must absolutely only stick to. ‘I work a lot with people’s individual goals. My background is in personal training and fitness instruction, strength and conditioning coaching, nutrition, powerlifting, Pilates and team coaching. So, I use everything in my arsenal to ensure that those goals are met.’ Each time he shows me something new I can put in my bank and use another time. I am learning about things like hypertrophy training, HIIT, resistance training- huh do you not just go in, sweat a little, pat yourself on the back and go through McDonalds DriveThru on the way home (joking Conor…..). There is a science to all of this. There are ways in which you can optimise the day that’s in it and gain the results you want depending on what type of training you do. Mostly I look at Conor, mouth open, dumbfounded, nod, tell myself I’ll totally remember this, go do whatever challenging exercise he has planned for me, and then forget the theory behind it all. But I am learning. He is teaching me well. I can go to the gym on my own now (but I am probably doing an arm exercise on a leg machine), spend the evening focusing on strengthening different areas of my body depending on how I am feeling. My knowledge is growing and I can pick and chose depending on my health that day. That is the beauty, he is showing me exercises that I can tap into whether I feel 10 or a 3.
Before all of this happened, every Sunday I would religiously do a 10km on the thread mill. I didn’t enjoy it; I felt I had to exercise and that was what I had to do and I had to simply suck it up and get on with it. Some Sundays I would smash it, and other Sundays I thought my life would end (little did I know). Whether I was a 10, or a 1, I pushed myself and it wasn’t enjoyable at all. Exercise doesn’t mean that to me anymore. A whole new world has opened up. Whether it is the day after chemo and I’m bringing the doggie for a walk, trying to get my 10000 steps in, two days after chemo and have a Pilates class on YouTube in my sitting room or a couple of days post chemo and doing a solid workout- it’s all available to me. I now understand the benefits of exercise and working my body. The body is not designed to sit at a desk all day, lie on the couch, have processed foods pushed through it, have toxic chemicals pushed through it, but alas this is the world we live in so we all must do our very best to reduce assault from every angle. Once you have the tools and are clever about how you go about it, it’s actually quite enjoyable to know you are doing something good for your body. Conor asked me in our first session what were my goals are regarding exercise; what do I want to achieve out of exercise and my personal trainings with him. It caught me off guard a little. I just knew I wanted to stop any further loss of muscle mass, and didn’t want old creaky bones by the time thirty comes around. I have been thinking about it a lot since; what is my end goal here. It wasn’t long ago that I had a tube stuck in my lung, tube in my kidney and pain pretty much everywhere. To exercise,, pfff..it was something I just couldn’t do anymore. And it broke my heart. Probably seems dramatic, but imagine your body suddenly doesn’t allow you perform something taken for granted every single day. Suddenly, damn, constantly living life on an empty tank. Feeling weak, tired, out of breath a lot, pains everywhere. But my health improved- I wasn’t five steps behind anymore, more like half a step behind. From that moment I knew I had to use the body I have to it’s fullest potential. I haven’t looked back since. Along with a healthy plant based diet (there has been a few slip ups on nights out or a self pity evening drowning in Ben and Jerry’s) and exercise mostly everyday I finally feel in control of my body again. And holy lord, the empowerment it gives is fantastic. I don’t want anybody reading this blog going through chemo, or any other ailment which hinder the ability to exercise to think they suddenly need to go to the gym seven days a week. Not at all. I have been there; I haven’t been able to see straight with the fuzziness of chemo. Short walks. Small five minutes here or there. Call a friend, sister, mother and get them out with you. If you are feeling better go to a Pilates class, wrap up that PICC line, hop in the pool and do a light aerobics class. The gold standard is thirty minutes of exercise five days a week, moderate intensity- that means you are a little out of breath. You can still talk but should be under pressure to sing a song. There are loads of options- throw on a Youtube dance class, chase after your nephew/niece/grandchildren. On days you feel like you are a little more capable, try something a little more challenging. So there is my number one goal; to feel like I own my body again. I am not a case study in a journal somewhere, not a statistic, not a pin cushion. I have an identity outside of the oncology day ward. I am strong, I am capable, I am ready to fight this to the end. (Goal no.2- great abs)
I finally feel like Sarah again. The self confidence I have regained in the last few weeks is breathtaking (or else it’s the squats that have me breathless..not sure). I have goals that are not just scan results. I have objectives that are directly achievable by the hard work I put in, and not something I ‘hope’ will work. I am in charge of what my body goes through, but this time I get something out of it. If it’s torture, well at least it’s a good torture. An hour with Conor and you’ll soon know. Deep, I know, but when your world is suddenly not yours anymore, you have to reclaim it in different, new ways. The chips never fall in the way you think they will, but it’s not always a bad thing. Once you are learning, you are never losing.
With Conor’s help and guidance I am developing the knowledge to take on each day as it comes and push myself depending on that day. I trust him completely to guide me in the right direction. He is not afraid of a challenge, and neither am I so it’s a good combination. He has the skills to work with any fitness level. He has the pro athlete in at 9am and then I wobble in the door at 10am and he can completely tune into the different scenarios and situations and exploit techniques he has learned over the last few years to get the best results.
Over the next while I’ll blog different exercises he teaches me and show a typical workout whether I am feeling a 10 or I am feeling a 4. There are no specific programmes out there for people undergoing chemotherapy. There doesn’t have to be- learn the basics and you can tap into any exercise you want depending on energy levels.
As Conor says ‘I consider myself lucky to be in a position where I can affect and change people’s lives for the better, for that I am grateful and it is my philosophy to never pass up any opportunity to do so. Every day I can impact someone, every day I can inspire someone, every day I can empower someone, every day I can encourage someone. For that, I am privileged to have the opportunity.’
Let’s get to work!!