‘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
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