Saturday 20 April 2019

'Exercise helped me regain control of my body during my battle with breast cancer'

The last thing on people's minds after receiving a cancer diagnosis is working out. But exercising during illness makes for a healthy body and mind

Eleanor Browne attended the Beacon Hospital's Fit for Life while she underwent radiation for breast cancer. Photo: Mark Condren
Eleanor Browne attended the Beacon Hospital's Fit for Life while she underwent radiation for breast cancer. Photo: Mark Condren

Vicki Notaro

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, exercise may be the last thing on their mind. However, a pioneering programme at the Beacon Hospital in Dublin has proved positive for many patients, from those in remission, to people currently undergoing chemotherapy.

Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist Ailish Daly was instrumental in setting up the programme back in 2012.

"While working in Norway in particular I was struck by how patients who even after the toughest chemotherapy and hardest surgeries, were so keen to get back to exercise. Our patients in Norway often had exercise bikes in their hospital rooms!

"When I got back home to Ireland I was keen to implement something like this in the Irish setting. This coincided with a lot of research being published on the importance of exercise and healthy lifestyle for cancer patients."

Recently there's been increasing research to show the importance of maintaining activity levels and a healthy lifestyle during and after cancer treatment.

In Ireland, only about 50pc of the population achieve the exercise target of 150 minutes per week, with even fewer cancer survivors getting this much.

"We noticed lots of our cancer patients weren't sure how to go about exercising during cancer treatment or whether it was safe or not, so we decided to set up a team-based rehab programme to see if providing weekly exercise and education sessions would help. The programme lasts for six weeks with check ups offered at three months, six months and one year."

You might not think it's important to stay physically fit during cancer treatment, but Aislih says it has many benefits.

"It can actually help reduce some of the side effects of treatment such as fatigue and weight-gain, and research is showing that cancer survivors who exercise regularly have improved recovery and survival after cancer treatment.

"It can also be a very positive focus during cancer treatment."

So while it's not about losing weight or hitting goals exactly, it's about promoting a healthy body and mind, and a good attitude towards recovery and the aftermath of treatment.

"The exercise class lasts for an hour," explains Ailish.

"Patients do a mix of fitness training, strengthening exercises such as using arm weights, sit-ups, squats, balance exercises and stretches.

"Each patient sets their own targets and exercises at their own pace, but they're advised to aim for shortness of breath or exertion."

Ailish and the team, which consists of physiotherapists, an oncologist, occupational therapist, dietitians and oncology nurses, provide help and advice, and each exercise class is accompanied by a 30-minute education session on topics such as healthy eating, and relaxation strategies.

It's not just the Beacon's patients who can take part - all patients undergoing or who have undergone cancer treatment are welcome to take part. Those undergoing treatment need a referral letter from their oncologist or GP, or if a patient is finished cancer treatment they can contact Beacon Physiotherapy to join the group.

Eleanor Browne, 34, from Killiney, Co Dublin, is one of the group's success stories - so much so that she's just back from a week scuba-diving in Iceland. She was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer in 2012. That means she had two separate tumours that responded differently to chemotherapy, so the decision was made to perform a double mastectomy, and a full auxiliary lymph node clearance on her left side.

Eleanor's mum had breast cancer 18 years ago, and her dad was treated for prostate cancer in 2010.

"It was following the mastectomy that my physiotherapy sessions began with Ailish. She was tasked with getting me moving; with all the will in the world I could barely lift or move my left arm."

Little by little Eleanor improved, and Ailish suggested she join the Fit For Life programme when she was finished her chemo.

"That in itself gave me a little goal to work towards in my head. I felt that yet another level of care had been added to the plan, and even though I felt in a somewhat weakened state at the time, I felt that this would help build me back up after treatment," says Eleanor.

Eleanor started the programme while undergoing radiation therapy at the same time.

"At that stage, between the lack of exercise during treatment, the steroids and eating cake because I had cancer, I was the heaviest I've ever been in my adult life.

"I was also getting used to wearing a double prosthesis in my bra, which was like two weights in itself, and my hair was only coming back so I was sporting a skin-head look.

"So it was absolutely preferable to be able to work out in the hospital environment with other patients who had been through cancer. I felt I could take off my beanie hat and not feel embarrassed that the lightest of weights were a struggle at the beginning."

For Eleanor, the Fit For Life programme gave her a sense of control. "It enabled me to regain use and control of my body, when I had relinquished it to the medical team to fight this disease."

Three months after she finished the programme, Eleanor enrolled in a local bootcamp class, having learned the skills she needed for strength and resistance training in the Beacon class.

"I discovered that exercise is a great way to settle the mind and push the body so that it rests properly. I've lost three stone since I finished my treatment. I also underwent reconstructive surgery which was another big surgery in April last year, but was back to full training by October.

"I feel strong and healthy, and I am the slimmest I have been since my early 20s. I have become a certified scuba diver in the past year and as I write this, I am looking forward to diving in glacial waters in Iceland next week."

Ailish is delighted to see the programme's "graduates" doing so well, and wants to spread the word that the service is available.

"We find that patients are keen to take part in the group; they see it as a positive element to an otherwise very stressful period. We welcome patients at all stages of their cancer treatments - for some patients struggle to attend while also having chemotherapy as they are already spending long periods in hospital, but other patients have found it a good way to keep up with exercise during chemotherapy. We work with whatever works for the patient."

For more information, call the Physiotherapy department of the Beacon on 01-2936692.

Why exercise is important during illness

* Regular exercise helps people feel fitter and lose weight, reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis

* Hormonal treatments which are used for some cancers combined with being less active can increase the risk of osteoporosis. This increases your risk of breaking a bone. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking or dancing helps keep you bones healthy and reduces the risk

* Exercise can also improve your coordination and balance. This may reduce your risk of having a fall

* Inactivity causes muscles to lose strength and work less efficiently. It can also lead to a feeling of extreme tiredness, stress and anxiety. Regular exercise can help to slowly build energy levels and help you feel better

* Cancer survivors who exercise regularly have been shown to have an improved long term recovery and survival

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