Life Health & Wellbeing

Tuesday 22 January 2019

'I took up boxing to get fit after my cancer treatment' - inspirational 73-year-old who's survived cancer

Finding a way to get back to gentle exercise after a lengthy break, through illness or otherwise, can be really hard. Tanya Sweeney asks the experts how to do it

Jennifer Sweeney (73) has survived oesophageal cancer.
Jennifer Sweeney (73) has survived oesophageal cancer.
Dubliner Jennifer Sweeney (73) took up boxing to get fit following cancer treatment
More and more over-65s are using their local gym
Aqua aerobics is a gentle way to return to exercise

North Dublin native Jennifer Sweeney (73), from Howth, has survived oesophageal cancer.

Up until she contracted the illness, she had enjoyed regular walks as part of her wellness regime. Her cancer treatment took a toll on her physical strength.

"I was diagnosed and really there was no cancer in my family, so I was more surprised than shocked," she says. "I was lucky that it was stage two cancer. I thought, 'I'm going to sail through this' and initially I found the chemo a doddle, but after a while I started to feel wretched, especially after the radiotherapy. I felt dreadful with fatigue and pain.

"I realised [recovery] was going to be a gradual process, using gentle exercises," she adds. "The first time I tried squats I thought, 'I can't do that'. I was afraid I'd fall on my backside. Now, 150 squats at a time aren't much bother to me."

More recently, Jennifer has taken up boxing.

"I do my (fitness) homework every day," she says. "I do what I call my 'Jennifer Lopez' bum exercises, and then some relaxation and stretching exercises.

"It's not just for your body, or your physical shape - it's also for your mind, and to make you feel better about yourself and give yourself confidence and hope.

"I can do things; I can lift things; I can carry things; and I can live a normal life," she adds.

"I feel so confident, I'm even fitter than before I got the cancer."

Elsewhere, when Dubliner Noel McLoughlin retired at the age of 74, four years ago, he was looking forward to a slower paced life and some well-deserved downtime. He had worked for decades as an electrician, often putting in long hours and enjoying the odd game of hurling.

No one could have anticipated the run of health woes that lay ahead. A year after retirement he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was treated successfully for it, but a year later, yet more health troubles were in store.

"I had 10 mini-strokes, and one of them was a bigger one that, luckily, they got in time," he says. "I'd fallen one morning and narrowly missed hitting the radiator. I then had a hip operation a year later, and was put on heart medication."

These are serious conditions that would seriously impact the lives of many people, yet thanks to a weekly fitness class at the Tallaght Stroke Survivor Group in Dublin, Noel is able to dance, walk every day and even do the occasional run.

"I weathered the storm, and feel great now," he says.

It hasn't always been this way. The succession of health challenges left Noel feeling vulnerable and low.

"Only for Irene [Noel's wife], I'd have given up," he says, "I was a contrary bugger and I wouldn't speak to anyone, even her, about what had happened to me. I'd feel very sad, and would end up bawling crying [in public]. I went to a funeral and everyone thought I was crying for the person in the coffin. I would be very annoyed with myself, but after a good cry, you feel like a new person."

Meeting like-minded people and other stroke survivors at the weekly class, arranged by Siel Bleu (a not-for-profit organisation which promotes exercise for older adults and those with chronic illness), only served to hasten his physical, and emotional, recovery.

"Initially, I was nervous meeting new people, but I realised that some [stroke survivors] were barely able to even lift their arms. Now, we're like a big family, and we meet up regularly outside of the classes and play cards or go bowling.

"With the exercises in the class, you'd be walking for a day after it, as it's about the shoulders and arms and legs. It's great for the arthritis. The Tuesdays don't be long in coming around."

Many see a decline in physical activity as part and parcel of the ageing process, but the reality couldn't be more different.

According to those in the know, it's never too late to start exercising, even after decades of sedentary work or a hectic family life.

The health benefits of excercise for those aged over 65 are bountiful.

By engaging in exercises, such as yoga or Pilates, people can maintain most of their flexibility and mobility, therefore decreasing the likelihood of falls.

Much research has also proven that regular exercise decreases a person's chance of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Exercise stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain, which can help stave of depression, a condition to which older people can be susceptible. Regular exercise has also been shown in many studies to delay the onset of osteoporosis.

Personal trainer Paul Kirwan has noticed an upswing in clients over 65; likely a result of several recent health awareness campaigns such as the Department of Health's Healthy Ireland initiative.

"I can't believe the amount of people who are realising that not just sport but movement is great for their health," he says. "There's been a big shift in older generations asking for regimes and building on classes they regularly attend.

"Aside from the many physical benefits, the social benefits of regular exercise are astronomical," he adds. "I've noticed that in some classes, the people become friends and meet up on their own time."

More often than not, older people can befall what Kirwan calls a 'psychological barrier': "There's a lot of stigma out there and it's not uncommon to hear people say, 'I'm too old to exercise' or 'it's too late for me to benefit'. But once they start it, the older generations really tend to stick to it."

As a trainer, Kirwan is aware of reading the limits of individual clients.

"If you've had shoulder problems, you know not to lift things over your head," he explains.

"If you have arthritic bones, gentle exercise is enough for your ability levels. I often tell people not to work into the pain, and if it's getting too hard, to simply stop."

As to how much exercise is optimal for those over 65, Kirwan adds: "My answer to that is as much as possible. Thirty minutes a day is perfect, and it needs to be spread out. If you're doing movement exercises in a chair, your cardio-vascular fitness might suffer. Lifting small weights or objects around the house is a good idea."

Many people get overwhelmed with the 'gym jargon', but the exercises are easy to incorporate into home life.

"Light resistance, for instance, can be done with a little light stretching in the morning, or even just going up and down on your toes 10 times as you're waiting for the kettle to boil," says Kirwan.

"It's surprisingly easy to stay active if you put your mind to it."

• Next week, from June 26, Siel Bleu will run a week-long awareness programme showcasing exercise programmes across the country. For more information, see


How to find an activity that suits you

Aqua aerobics is a gentle way to return to exercise

• COPD Ireland runs classes as part of its Exercise, COPD & Me Project, and the classes aim to reduce the deficit for community-based pulmonary rehab programmes after people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are discharged from hospital. The programme works with 14 COPD Support Ireland support groups nationwide. See

• Men's Sheds Association Ireland, a non-profit that brings together men of all ages for emotional and social support, has partnered with Siel Bleu to create the Shedders for Life initiative, which makes exercise more accessible to its members.

Quite apart from the obvious physical benefits, the inimitable camaraderie and vibe of the Men's Sheds branches has a huge impact on mental wellbeing, too.


• In 2012, Siel Bleu Ireland was commissioned by Genio's Living Well with Dementia project to bring a dynamic exercise programmes to adults living with dementia is South Dublin. The three-year project aims to raise awareness, promote early diagnosis and enable people living with dementia to continue to participate in their community. See livingwellwithdementia.

• Aqua Aerobics is a great option for anyone hoping to return to fitness after a lengthy hiatus. It's a low-impact sport that helps burn body fat, increase circulation and benefit those with rehabilitating muscles and joints.

Marian Swimming Pool in Dublin 4 has been offering classes for 25 years.

See for information.

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