Hear from Rachel about how she found getting back into exercise after being diagnosed, and how she's adapting her daily exercise in self-isolation. Some of Rachel's brilliant tips are about helping you get motivated and out of the house. We know that isn't possible for everyone right now, but we have linked to some resources to help you stay active at home at the end of the article. 

As I write this I’ve just made the decision to ‘self isolate’ (with the exception of my daily zapping)... It’s 4 weeks since my last chemo and I’m now on day 5 of 20 radiotherapy sessions.

I knew that exercise and staying active had been a massive part of my cancer treatment but now the realisation that it’s being taken away from me (in the form that I’m used to anyway) makes me realise that it’s actually been my saviour during all this and what’s got me through the last 8 months.

In July last year I heard those words that haunt all of us forever ‘I’m so sorry it’s cancer’... It was grade 3 breast cancer and I was 34, not the youngest patient by any means but still too young. 

Sport and fitness have been a big part of my life from an early age and I knew that continuing to stay active during my treatment would help me both physically and mentally. From the moment I was diagnosed I vowed that I would  ‘continue to move’ everyday, didn’t matter how much or how intense. 

My treatment plan started with two rounds of surgery followed by five months of chemo and now radio and I’m also having a year's worth of targeted infusions every three weeks. 

So far I’ve stuck to my goal and continued to stay active during all of this. I’ve varied my workouts depending on what stage of treatment I’m at and how much energy I’ve got. It’s been a range of physiotherapy, yoga or more intense workouts like CrossFit and bootcamps. And I’ve ditched my car and walked A LOT.

The biggest impact it’s had is on my mental health. It’s allowed me to keep a ‘normality’ and routine that I so desperately crave. I still often attend 6am classes (crazy I know), the same classes I attended before diagnosis. For that hour, I forget I’ve got cancer, forget about all the hospital appointments and forget that my life has been turned upside down. All I can think about is how I’m going to get through the next set, or 5 minutes of the workout. And then of course the rush of endorphins and adrenaline once I’ve achieved it makes you feel amazing. 

I also found it was a great way to kid my body into refocusing a lot of my aches and pains. For example, the chemo I had can give you really bad muscle, joint and bone pain. So for the few days before my ‘chemo crash’ I’d do extra hard sessions in the gym which I knew would lead to my muscles aching. Then once the crash came, mentally I would blame it on the epic workouts rather than cancer and chemo. I found it gave me less resentment towards the treatment and ‘normalised’ the way I felt. I know that sounds weird, but it worked for me. 

It’s also been a great way to fill my days and make new groups of friends. As I’m not working at the moment, the days can be pretty antisocial and lonely. But now I’m part of the housewives crew haha

But it’s definitely not always been easy. There’s been the days where I’ve had a random nose bleed because I’ve got no nose hairs. And other days when i’ve just started to cry in the middle of a class. When I’m absolutely drained by fatigue and so physically weak, every now and again I’ll look at my friends and they remind me of the old me, the pre-cancer me and how fit I used to be. But at the same time my fitness family are always there to encourage me and remind me how far I’ve come. 

And the cringiest of cringe statement is always said…...Not all strength is shown by the number of kgs you lift - so cringe but so true.

So now I’m sat here in ‘self isolation’ not allowed to go to the gym and I can honestly say it’s devastated me. But with this I’ll just have to accept my new fitness challenge - a daily home workout. I’ve got my yoga mat and a load of random household items as weights at the ready. Even the coronavirus and quarantine won’t stop me. And of course I’ll be going for long walks everyday. I hope to show to people that, whilst it’s definitely not always easy, exercise can be a hugely powerful tool as part of treatment. 

So here’s my top tips for exercising during treatment:

  1. Walk, walk and walk some more - the fresh air and just moving will make you feel so much better. Some days you won’t feel like it. But give yourself 5/10 minutes and you’ll soon start to feel much better.
  2. Start a step challenge with your mates / family - if you’re anything like me (super competitive!) then this alone will get you moving.
  3. Struggling to get out the house? - arrange to meet friends at the gym or book onto a class.
  4. Trust that you will feel better once you get there and start working out. And if you don’t you can always stop and go home. No one will judge you.
  5. After surgery - The hospital will give you some physio exercises. Think of these as your new gym programme - even go to the gym to do them. As you progress day by day they’ll be your gym gains.

And here’s what no one tells you about exercising during treatment.

  1. Be prepared to get emo - with the lack of sleep and the general shittiness of cancer treatment we’re all much more emotional. Then add into the mix a workout or meditation session and all the feels come flooding out. So don’t be alarmed and definitely don’t be embarrassed or ashamed if you burst into tears mid class. It’s completely normal!!! And if you’re anything like me (basically an ice queen) then it’s probably a great way to let some of the stress out.
  2. Yoga on chemo - Everyone will tell you to do yoga - WARNING: downward dog when you feel sick is not always a good idea.
  3. No hair - no one tells you about the impact having no nose hair, eyelashes and eyebrows has. But basically your eyes will continuously water, be puffy and itchy, your nose will always be runny and randomly bleed. And with no eyebrows your sweat runs straight into your already watery eyes. And all of this is enhanced when you workout.
  4. Steroids - sadly the steroids we get aren’t going to give you epic gains in the gym and you’re not going to be breaking any world records. Instead they’ll mean you don’t sleep, which combined with the chemo sends you into this weird zombie state and sometimes you’ve got no idea where you are.
  5. Chafing (and random rashes in very embarrassing places)- Your skin becomes uber sensitive and even a clothing tag can cause a rash. But don’t panic - if you get this just lube up with some Vaseline.

Want help to get active and improve your symptoms and chronic fatigue levels? We're here to help you do just that, even when you are self-isolating.