‘It was so in­cred­i­ble to get back my strength’

Af­ter her cancer bat­tle, Jen­nifer Ho­gan found vi­tal support at a unique fit­ness class for pa­tients, writes Ce­line Naughton

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - COVER STORY -

EX­ER­CISE is medicine and should be pre­scribed to all cancer pa­tients as part of their on­go­ing re­cov­ery, ac­cord­ing to an Ir­ish ex­pert. Re­search, con­ducted by clin­i­cal ex­er­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist, Mairéad Cantwell and spon­sored by the Ir­ish Cancer So­ci­ety, shows that ex­er­cise is in fact a key weapon in boost­ing re­cov­ery.

For the past three years, Mairéad has worked with par­tic­i­pants on a 12-week ex­er­cise pro­gramme for cancer sur­vivors, called ‘Move On.’

This is part of the MedEx well­ness pro­gramme at Dublin City Univer­sity, which runs med­i­cally su­per­vised ex­er­cise classes for peo­ple with a range of chronic ill­nesses, in­clud­ing cancer. At the end of their cancer treat­ment, par­tic­i­pants take part in an hour-long med­i­cally su­per­vised ex­er­cise class twice a week.

Dr Jen­nifer Ho­gan took part in the pro­gramme last year fol­low­ing treat­ment for breast cancer. An ob­ste­tri­cian and gy­nae­col­o­gist by pro­fes­sion and a keen ath­lete in her leisure time, she had com­pleted a triathlon the day she found a lump on her breast. She re­calls it as a mo­ment that changed her life overnight. Aged 36 when she re­ceived her di­ag­no­sis, her sub­se­quent treat­ment in­cluded a gru­elling 14-month regime of chemo­ther­apy, surg­eries, ra­di­a­tion ther­apy and in­fu­sions.

Hav­ing gone from an ex­cep­tion­ally fit and ac­tive woman, by the time her treat­ment ended, she was weak­ened to the point of ex­haus­tion. Even the sim­ple act of get­ting out of bed in the morn­ing re­quired ma­jor ef­fort. She en­rolled on the ‘Move On’ pro­gramme in a bid to re­gain some of the strength and fit­ness she’d en­joyed be­fore her cancer di­ag­no­sis.

“It was amaz­ing,” she says. “This was a spring­board that helped me go from in­ca­pac­i­tated to be­ing able to ex­er­cise again.

“I wasn’t com­fort­able ex­er­cis­ing with my triathlon mates, be­cause I couldn’t keep up with them and felt I was hold­ing them back. To be in an en­vi­ron­ment where every­body had been through cancer treat­ment was ideal. The group spanned all lev­els of fit­ness. I saw one per­son who couldn’t climb a few steps at the be­gin­ning of the pro­gramme bounce up the stairs at the end.

“The ex­er­cises were tai­lored to each par­tic­i­pant’s abil­i­ties. We had talks on nu­tri­tion, healthy eat­ing, and set­ting our­selves goals. I pushed my­self as hard as I could and as time went on, it was in­cred­i­bly heart­en­ing to see my­self achiev­ing those goals, and feel­ing my strength re­turn. It was a long, slow process, but I’m now train­ing for the Dublin half-marathon in Septem­ber.”

Now 38, Jen­nifer is also back at work in the Coombe Hospi­tal, where she says her own or­deal has given her a new in­sight into the suf­fer­ing of her pa­tients, many of whom have lost ba­bies due to mis­car­riage.

“Dur­ing my cancer jour­ney I lost my job, tem­po­rar­ily, my sport, and even my iden­tity for a while,” she says. “It opened my eyes to un­der­stand things from a pa­tient’s per­spec­tive. The road to re­cov­ery has been chal­leng­ing, and I was for­tu­nate to have the support of fam­ily, friends, col­leagues and, not least, my part­ner, who’s also very sporty and en­cour­aged me all the way. Would he ex­er­cise with me? He’d push me out the door!”

One of the first mile­stones Jen­nifer achieved was com­plet­ing the 5km ARC Cancer Support Cen­tre walk in Phoenix ■ Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity guide­lines rec­om­mend a min­i­mum of 150 min­utes (2.5 hours) of mod­er­ate in­ten­sity aer­o­bic ex­er­cise a week. Walking, cy­cling, swim­ming, jog­ging… choose an ac­tiv­ity you en­joy — and work up a sweat. The talk test is an easy way to mon­i­tor whether you’re giv­ing your­self a car­dio work­out. You should be able to hold a con­ver­sa­tion, but not too com­fort­ably.

÷Do re­sis­tance ex­er­cises, like weight train­ing, two to three times a week. This works the mus­cles and im­proves strength. You don’t need ex­pen­sive equip­ment: hold­ing a large bot­tle of wa­ter in each hand while do­ing a bi­ceps curl is a sim­ple, ef­fec­tive ex­er­cise. Re­sis­tance bands — strong elas­tic bands, some with han­dles, some with­out — are cheap, easy to store, and work all the mus­cle groups. ÷If you like the gym, sign up to an ex­er­cise class — the group dy­namic will boost your chances of stick­ing with it.

■ Make it a habit of tak­ing the stairs in­stead of the lift, leave the car at home, and if you’re on a bus, get off a few stops early and walk the rest of the way.

÷Check out ac­tiv­i­ties in your local cancer support cen­tre.

÷The up­per body ex­er­cise in­volved in row­ing Chi­nese-style dragon boats is re­garded by medics as an ex­cel­lent ther­apy for women pad­dling their way to re­cov­ery af­ter breast cancer treat­ment. For a list of clubs, see lym­phire­land.com/dragon-boat-rac­ing


Cancer sur­vivor Jen­nifer Ho­gan runs in The Memo­rial Gar­dens in Kil­main­ham, Dublin

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