Sunday 22 July 2018

How exercise can help you move on after cancer

Exercise has long been billed as a key part of the cancer recovery journey. We meet the patients lifting and squatting their way back to health

Phil Maguire from Malahide benefited from the Move On exercise-based programme at DCU. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Phil Maguire from Malahide benefited from the Move On exercise-based programme at DCU. Photo: Frank McGrath.

Ailin Quinlan

It's widely known that physical exercise is a crucial part of healing for those who've undergone heart surgery - but did you know that science is now advocating it for cancer survivors too?

The preliminary findings of research currently underway at Dublin City University into the benefits of Move On, a special gym-based exercise programme for cancer survivors who have concluded treatment, show significant improvements in participants' physical and emotional well-being.

Building contractor Phil Maguire knows all about the benefits of Move On, which is a twice-weekly exercise session featuring a variety of aerobic and resistance exercises.

It is one of several initiatives being run at the university under its MedEx programme, a unique model of chronic illness rehabilitation.

The Malahide resident and married father of three adult children was diagnosed with bowel cancer in September 2013.

Complications with bleeding, followed by the wound opening, meant he had a total of three operations and spent several days in an induced coma and a total of five weeks in hospital.

When he was finally discharged last October, Phil had lost three stone in weight, had developed a hernia and was, he says himself, "as weak as a kitten."

It was nearly 18 months before he was back to anything resembling normal, but once he was deemed fit enough, he signed up to Move On in March 2015.

At the time, he recalls, that, following several operations and 18 months of pain and weakness, he was very cautious about over-doing it - but the programme transformed him.

"The programme pushed me further and made me realise I wasn't as precious as I thought I was - and that I could do a lot more than I thought I was capable of!

"Move On is a medically supported exercise session for people who have had cancer and or surgery. It takes place in a gym in DCU.

"You're lifting weights, running and cycling and doing floor exercises - you do what you can, and if you can't do something they will always give you an alternative.

"I found that it loosened me up. It was reassuring to be working with medical people - you know you're not straining yourself," says the 74-year-old, who has still not taken retirement.

Move On lasted for three months, and the difference in Phil's test results between the start and end of the programme was highly significant.

His physical stamina improved tremendously as a result of the challenging gym sessions - and he's still feeling the benefits.

"I now do a regular brisk walk and I am still working, so my life is very active.

"The Move On programme really helped. I am 74 and I still do a full day's work!"

None of this comes as a surprise to Mairead Cooney, a clinical exercise physiologist specialising in Chronic Illness Rehabilitation who has worked in the UK, Australia and Ireland.

Cooney, a native of Navan, is currently carrying out doctoral research funded by the Irish Cancer Society into the benefits of Move On.

It's the first piece of research the organisation has funded into the area of rehabilitation and her study of the programme, which has been running for two years and has put some 200 participants through their paces, has thrown up some very satisfying results.

Although a formal presentation of the preliminary data will not take place til next November, Cooney is pleased.

Engaging in Move On, she says, has brought about very significant improvements in the physical fitness, flexibility, strength and quality of life or emotional and social well-being of participants.

"I believe exercise is critical to good health for everyone and particularly for those with chronic illness," she says, adding that over several years of working in the area of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation, she noticed such services did not appear to be as widely available to cancer survivors.

Cooney would like to see structured physical activity such as that in Move On, routinely built in to rehabilitation programmes for cancer survivors.

"Patients come at the start of the Move On programme and their fitness levels are tested.

"They join a structured group exercise programme and exercise twice a week for one-hour sessions in the gym.

"It is a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise - running and cycling, and weight training," she explains, adding that the programme is specifically tailored to the needs of cancer survivors who have finished their treatment.

"It's incredible what this programme can do for people. Personally I would hope to see exercise rehabilitation become the norm for cancer survivors in much the same way as for patients with cardiovascular issues," she says, pointing to recommendations issued by the American Cancer Society in 2012 that cancer survivors not only avoid inactivity, but return to normal daily life as soon as possible.

The link between cancer research and physical exercise will be further emphasised in Kildare tomorrow, Tuesday, August 11, when Irish horse racing and hurling legends clash the ash in a celebrity hurling match. A veritable who's who of sports stars will line out at Saint Conleth's GAA grounds in Newbridge from 6.30pm to battle it out on the hurling pitch in aid of the Irish Cancer Society - and more specifically, its role in funding cancer research.

This is the fourth year of the event, which has to date raised €300,000 for cancer research, and is being organised by horse racing legend Jim Bolger and champion jockey Davy Russell.

The participants, a mix of GAA and horse racing stars, include Mark Landers, TJ Ryan, Pat Fox, Dave Bernie, Damien Fitzhenry, Charlie Carter, James Dowling, Wexford All-Ireland winning manager Liam Griffin, Kilkenny manager Brian Cody, Derby-winning Jockeys Kevin Manning and Michael J Kinane, Colm O'Rourke, Ronnie Delaney, top female jockey Katie Walsh, soccer legend Niall Quinn, hurling legends DJ Carey and Nicky English, and Cyril Farrell as referee for the day.

Irish icon Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh will be craoltoir on the day. Anthony Kearns will sing Amhrán na bhFiann.

Tickets cost €10 for adults and €15 for families and can be purchased online or by phoning CallSave 1850 60 60 60. All money raised will go to the Irish Cancer Society.

For more information on Hurling for Cancer Research, visit

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