It all started when ….
In May 2018, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer known as triple negative breast cancer. It means there was low to no hormone receptors on my cancer cells. I had been screening for breast cancer since 2014, as two of my maternal Aunts had had breast cancer. I was all too aware of the cost of a late diagnosis with the loss of my Aunt Judith in 2001.
Diagnosis into action plan
I was referred by a doctor at my surf club - Dr John Barry to Dr Cindy Mak. I asked him. If it was your wife, mother, sister or daughter who would you go to see.
Dr Cindy Mak was amazing from the moment I met her. A powerhouse who had the sense of urgency I felt. She did not just focus on her speciality (silo thinking) but explained to treat my kind of breast cancer I would have to have chemo, breast surgery (I had mammoplasty lumpectomy - basically a boob lift scars that allowed Dr Mak better access to the cancer and reduced the lumpiness of my breast afterwards - so still my boobs), then radiation with the AMAZING Dr Jo Toohey.
As is Dr Mak’s manner she said to me “the good news is, your cancer responds very well to chemo”. I cried. The image I had of chemo was no hair, vomiting, totally useless and unable to move heroin thinness.
My Chemo Exercise Trial
All of that changed when I was introduced to Dr Sara Wahlroos the head of Exercise Oncology at The Kinghorn Cancer Centre.
Dr Sara Wahlroos enrolled me in her study of the impacts of weight bearing exercise on breast cancer treatment read more here
During the program I was encouraged to walk 8000 steps a day and lift weights 3 times a week. 6 simple exercise that included my arch nemesis - push ups. So I began chemo and like many patients before me and many that will come after me, I underestimated the impact of a working immune system and I got sick. But what I did have that many others don’t have - is a program to follow, a doctor pushing me to exercise and keeping track of what I am doing.
But long story short - I did it. The results:
I walked on average 8900 steps over the 156 days of chemo and completed more than 60 weights workouts.
I lifted heavier weights at the end of chemo than the start.
I never threw up. The list of side effects were not glamorous but I didn’t throw up.
I was not heroin thin at the end of chemo and my muscle mass had not wasted away. I had no hair but I HAD MY MUSCLES.
I had created a healthy habit of doing weight bearing exercise which is SO critical for humans as we age.
Exercise gave me the resilience. Chemo and cancer treatment is a marathon. You can’t sprint at the start to make it go faster. Having exercise gave me something to control during chemo. I couldn’t control the side effects but I could control weights and food. Exercise is prevention for depression.
There are Dexa scan’s and a whole host of geeky data to back this up my results, more on this later.
and now what…
My experience was a limited research study. Dr Sara Wahlroos and I want to make sure everyone has free access to exercise during chemo.
Cancer costs a lot, more to say on this later, and you can’t work. Exercise helps battle the fatigue and hopefully returns people to full health faster.
So we met up with Associate Professor Steven Faux from St Vincents who runs the Rehab area of St Vincents public hospital. He has a gym… we have patients that could use it as “pre-hab”.