Fight­ing back with fit­ness

Style Magazine - - Feature - BY JOSIE ADAMS

Glenda walks into the gym, drops her bags and rolls out an ex­er­cise mat while cheer­ily chat­ting with a few per­sonal train­ers.

Just over a year ago Glenda had a dou­ble mas­tec­tomy, and had lost nearly all move­ment in her up­per body.

“You don’t re­alise it but they don’t just take your boo­bies out. They take ev­ery­thing. Mus­cle, nerves. It was like my arms and shoul­ders just froze,” she says.

‘But now I can do this,” she says laugh­ing as she lifts both of her arms over her head.

“I can fi­nally hang out the wash­ing … and lift 20 ki­los.”

Glenda, with 11 other women in var­i­ous stages of breast can­cer treat­ment or re­cov­ery, is cel­e­brat­ing the last day of the Fight­ing Back with Fit­ness Pro­gram with a work­out, of course, and a lot of laugh­ing and chat­ting.

The pi­lot pro­gram is an Aus­tralian first in a com­mu­nity set­ting. The women have been train­ing to­gether for 90 min­utes, three times a week for 12 weeks, un­der the ob­ser­va­tion and guid­ance of ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gists and per­sonal train­ers at Fit Lab’s High Performance and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre.

Ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist Henry El­liot can be seen co-or­di­nat­ing per­sonal train­ers, pop­ping in and out of his of­fice and help­ing the women into their warm-up stretches.

Over his ca­reer, Henry says, he has worked with sev­eral peo­ple across all stages of can­cer and treat­ment, in­clud­ing in the acute chemo­ther­apy phase, and has seen the pos­i­tive ef­fects of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. His pas­sion for the pro­gram is ev­i­dent. “Can­cer sucks, but the treat­ments are worse,” he says.

“Chemo, ra­dio­ther­apy, surgery, hor­mone treat­ments and the ad­di­tional drugs to im­prove the ef­fec­tive­ness of these treat­ments are in­cred­i­ble. They save lives. But they are se­ri­ously un­pleas­ant and re­morse­less in their col­lat­eral dam­age to qual­ity of life.”

The phys­i­cal toll treat­ment takes on the body is im­mense. As in Glenda’s case, af­ter surgery, cord­ing or a hard­en­ing of the tis­sue un­der the arm can feel like a ca­ble bind­ing the ribcage to the up­per arm. Also, both surgery and chemo­ther­apy can dam­age the lym­phatic sys­tem, caus­ing painful vol­umes of fluid in the arms or ab­domen.

“Early-on­set menopause, in­fer­til­ity,

hot flushes, frailty, sar­cope­nia, os­teope­nia, pso­ri­a­sis, prob­lems with bal­ance, falls risk, the list is very, very long.”

Henry also says fa­tigue is a near-ubiq­ui­tous side-ef­fect and it of­ten ex­ac­er­bates the big­gest chal­lenge many women face: main­tain­ing their men­tal health.

“Even if we com­pletely ig­nore the bio­med­i­cal im­pact of treat­ment, it is the other side-ef­fects that peo­ple never think about. The change in so­cial iden­tity – these are care­givers, moth­ers, doc­tors and stu­dents, sud­denly turned into clin­i­cal pa­tients and re­ceivers of care,” he says.

“The dis­ease and its treat­ments com­pletely change how peo­ple see you, how you see your­self, what is im­por­tant to you and how much of your day is your own choice.

“To have to think about things like the Reg­istry of Deaths, cost of treat­ment, loss or change of ca­reer, con­cern that your own chil­dren might get can­cer too.

“Stress and fear are en­demic in this ex­pe­ri­ence. Then you con­sider the fa­tigue bur­den and the cog­ni­tive de­cline – men­tal health is a big fac­tor here.”

As I sit and watch the women jok­ing and smil­ing, while mov­ing their bod­ies in ways they couldn’t think pos­si­ble 12 weeks ago, it oc­curs to me that this pro­gram re­ally is in­valu­able. There is no talk of can­cer, just a group of women do­ing their car­dio and lift­ing weights.

“This cer­tainly wasn’t some dream-team of ex-ath­letes rolling up for gym ses­sion,” Henry says.

“Some of the women gen­uinely be­lieved they couldn’t make it through one day at a gym. We had five ladies who were un­able to stand from the floor and whose men­tal health scores were con­sid­ered ex­treme for mea­sures of stress and anx­i­ety.

‘‘Dur­ing the pro­gram there were surg­eries, births, deaths, ill­ness. There was some se­ri­ously tough sh-go­ing around the gym some days, but it only brought ev­ery­one closer to­gether.

“Now ev­ery­one can drop and rise from the floor and their men­tal health and fa­tigue scores are sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter.”

Henry says that while the clin­i­cal re­sults have been out­stand­ing, the most re­ward­ing out­come has been on a per­sonal level.

“When I hear things like ‘my friends told me I’m glow­ing’, or ‘I skipped down a set of stairs on the week­end with­out think­ing about it – and then re­mem­bered only a few months ago I had hob­bled down them’, that is what mat­ters.”

“The true value of this pro­gram is that it worked. This kind of thing should be stan­dard care for most can­cers – the ev­i­dence is so rich and pro­found.”

PHO­TOS: JOSIE ADAMS

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