In August 2011 I discovered a lump under my arm and three weeks later, just after my 30th birthday, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. In the weeks that followed I had various hospital tests before starting a six month course of chemotherapy, during which I would not be able to work due to the risk of picking up infections.
The clinical specialist nurse talked me through all the side effects of the treatment which included fatigue and nausea. One of the burning questions I had was whether I could continue to exercise. I had joined the gym in August 2009. I work full-time as a nurse, so started by going three times a week before or after a shift. I was relieved to have a positive response from my haematology consultant, stating that people who exercise tend to experience less side effects of chemotherapy, although fatigue may impair my ability to carry out strenuous exercise.
From this point onwards, I threw myself into exercise in the lead up to chemotherapy. Having been a regular gym user, I had got to know Sam, the manager of the gym, fairly well and I felt able to confide in Sam about my diagnosis. I felt sure that there would be many ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ once treatment started and I was concerned that, like family and friends, Sam may offer ‘take it easy’ warnings. What I really wanted to hear was encouraging words that would give me some hope of being able to keep some normality in my life.
On 16 September I had my first chemotherapy session. My treatments were once every two weeks, so I filled my time with socialising with family and friends, and exercise. I gave up circuits and spinning classes once chemo had started, as I feared that it would be too hard. I felt very much like I had lost my way at times, but continued to feel fairly well during and after chemo sessions and exercise was my coping mechanism so I was as determined as ever to keep it up.
In October, I was asked if I was interested in taking part in a Spinathon at my local leisure centre. Although it was only for a half hour period, my initial thought was that it would be too intense and I would struggle. I was reassured that I could have little or no resistance on the bike if I wanted. And so I signed up. I surprised myself that morning, I was able to maintain a good pace with resistance and felt able to give Spin classes another go. From then onwards, I did 5-6 exercise classes a week, including spin classes, fitball (core stability classes) and fitness Pilates.
I informed instructors of my diagnosis for health and safety reasons and the help and support I received from every one of them has been amazing. There were always days where fatigue kicks in and some exercises were a struggle. I learnt not to have such high expectations of myself, instead, tried to remain positive and realistic about what I was able to achieve. There were always bad days, but I think it’s important to not give up on something you enjoy.
I have now finished chemotherapy. I am very lucky to have amazing support from family and friends and am also very thankful to the fitness team at my local leisure centre, they may never know just how much they have helped me during my treatment. Exercise will always be a part of my life and I hope that later this year I will be able to run a half marathon.
The message I want to share with anyone else who enjoys exercise and has received a diagnosis of cancer is that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and seek the right help and advice from experts. I feel exercise played an important role in helping me to fight off colds and viruses, prevented weight gain and has helped to lift my mood on days when my illness dragged me down.