How exercise transformed my experience of cancer

What’s more, the trials also found that exercise could reduce side effects from chemotherapy and even prevent cancer from spreading and returning, so boosting the chances of long-term survival. 

Far from being an outlier, this trial adds to a wealth of evidence showing the benefits of staying active for cancer patients. In 2020, a study reported by the US National Cancer Institute said that women with high-risk breast cancers like mine who were physically active before, during and after cancer diagnosis and treatment were less likely to have their cancer return or to die. “Our data strongly suggests that the more consistently active patients were, the better they did,” said lead study author Dr Rickki Cannioto. 

Even more startlingly, a 2017 Canadian review of 67 published studies found that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise such as dancing, brisk walking or cycling, five times a week, alongside conventional treatment, could cut breast cancer recurrence by 40 per cent. Similarly, US research from Yale University has found a daily brisk walk of just 25 minutes was found to almost halve mortality among breast cancer sufferers.

In 2019, a report by Macmillan Cancer Support, the Royal College of Anaesthetists, the National Institute for Health Research Cancer and Nutrition Collaboration said: “People are less vulnerable to the side effects of cancer treatment if they are as healthy as possible, physically and psychologically.”

But the benefits of being active are not just physical. The organisations said that giving those diagnosed with cancer help to improve their fitness and nutrition could also help patients to “reclaim a sense of control”. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends exercise to reduce depression and increase the quality of life. 

That certainly rings true for me. My initial diagnosis immediately sent me into a tailspin of panic. Every tiny twinge in my body felt like proof I was riddled with tumours. And suddenly the exercise that, frankly, I’d taken up with vanity in mind, took on a far more profound meaning. During yoga poses, I could identify the healthy causes of discomfort as my muscles stretched or supported me. During the final minutes of relaxation, I repeated a mantra in my mind – “I am well. I am strong.” 

My body wasn’t just a site of disease or object to be subjected to increasingly frightening treatments. By exercising I could feel in charge, enjoy myself and become stronger. I wasn’t surprised to read a report from 2017 that yoga, in particular, has been found to boost energy, improve sleep and emotional wellbeing and reduce pain and fatigue in women with breast cancer.

I was forced to give up work soon after my diagnosis as I found I couldn’t concentrate. Plus the deadlines I used to thrive on increased my anxiety levels and sent my mood plummeting, bad for my family life and my recovery. Yet I instinctively stepped up my exercise, as I felt this would help me both mentally and physically. 

The day I was told the tests showed my cancer hadn’t spread, I headed to the gym to celebrate. I also aimed to walk 8,000 steps a day. After each fortnightly chemo session, I’d call my husband and we’d take our dachshund Merlin for a walk in the woods. The combination of fresh air, nature and movement offered a glorious contrast to sitting for hours in a sterile hospital being pumped full of vital but toxic chemicals. 

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