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'Fitness saved my mental health'
We are all unique. Our cancers were unique. Our treatment cocktails and plans were unique. How we weathered the storm was unique.
We all arrived at that moment of diagnosis at different points in our lives. Some of us had been physically active before, some of us decided to get active during treatment and some found the motivation afterwards.
All we need to really hold on to is that doing something is better than doing nothing, even on the days when we struggle to get out of bed. Even better, if we can get outside, take notice of the seasons around us, and spend time in nature, we will never be lonely – beyond the four walls of our home, life marches on and wants us to join it.
I had been very active previously
I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer when I was 37. I had started getting active a number of years before, firstly by training for the Shine Cancer Research walking marathons in support of a friend, then by giving running a go and ultimately setting up my own run group and becoming a Sport Development Officer at the Council I was working at. Being active and motivating other people to get active was very much what I was about.
My cancer was initially missed, only finally being picked up after I asked for the offending fibroadenoma to be removed and tested. My Oncologist knew I was a runner and so felt sure that my body could take a harsh programme of chemo. She was right, having a good level of fitness and probably a certain amount of luck with genetics meant that my bloods held good levels with only small blips towards the end.
What did happen along the way was that I mentally crashed. I lost my sense of identity and purpose. Being bald hit me harder than I expected. I withdrew from people and work. I would make the odd run group session and parkrun but the highs of spending time around people and getting active would lead to crashing lows. It was hard for people to be around me, and my marriage fell apart. Ultimately I finished treatment a round early and ended up in a mental health unit.
In hindsight, this was the best thing that could have happened to me as it gave me time and space away from the pressures of home. I still had surgery ahead, but I had to face what had happened to me and find a way to work out what life was going to look like afterwards.
Hold your friends and family closer to your heart
I started pushing myself to run loops round the ward garden. Then around the hospital site, stopping to pick up fresh fruit from the greengrocer. My parkrun friends even picked me up and took me for a tourist parkrun. Bit by bit, I was piecing myself back together.
My run group and my sister were my strongest supporters throughout this. I learned more about their struggles over the years. Mental ill health is the great leveller – it can happen to anyone at any time. It is also the true route to empathy. When you are on your knees and others that have trodden that path crouch down beside you and try to lift you up, you never quite go back to the person that you were.
The New Normal is an overused phrase applied to cancer patients and it can strike fear into you at the time – however, when you have been fortunate to make it through treatment and you have had some time to heal, what it really means is that you have a greater appreciation for life and for the tough journeys of those around us. You hold those friends and family closer to your heart and you learn to let certain things go.
After all, life is short so move more and try to worry less. Above all, don’t compare yourself to anyone else, take joy from every achievement no matter how small and never grow up!
Emma, 41, is mum to a unique SEND teen, and works for a charity that aims to reduce social isolation and loneliness. Her cancer, Triple Negative, was diagnosed in January 2019, after previously being given a clear result. Treatment was chemotherapy, followed by an elective double mastectomy and reconstruction, just before the first Covid lockdown.
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