27 Jun An Athlete’s Perspective – Issue 4
An Athlete’s Perspective is a blog series of event and/or training experiences written firsthand by the athlete themselves. An Athlete’s Perspective is a completely unscripted and raw look into the mind and daily life of an athlete as they prepare for their next race. Readers will discover training regimens, eating tips, gear recommendations, and an uncut perspective into the lives of people like you and me.
Getting Back Into an Exercise Routine After Cancer
By: Amy Marsh
I was in great shape prior to my AML (Acute Myeloid Leukemia) cancer diagnosis in late 2014. I was training 20-25 hours a week as a professional triathlete and was at the peak of my athleticism. Earlier in 2014, I won a 70.3 and placed 5th in an Ironman Regional Pro Championship. By the time I finished nearly a year of heavy-duty chemotherapy, radiation treatments, a stem cell transplant, and the associated treatments, I was left with no hair, no muscle, and was barely able to walk up a flight of stairs. I was in the worst shape of my life. When I left the hospital to go home, I wasn’t sure what my body could and couldn’t handle. I wasn’t given much guidance on my post-treatment of what I could and should do for exercise. All the focus was on prevention of infections and other post-treatment illnesses.
Below are several tips I learned through my experience. They may also help others who have finished cancer treatments and want to get back to living a new ‘normal’ active life.
Start slow. I hated walking. I always found it boring and slow. Well…when I was in the hospital for most of 2015, walking was the only form of exercise I could really do. During my treatments, I would try to get up every couple of hours and walk the halls. Some days I could only manage five minutes before I had to go back to bed. Other days I could go for 30+ minutes. Five laps around the halls of the 17th floor of MD Anderson Cancer Center equaled one mile. There were some days that one mile took me 40 minutes and some days 20 minutes (yes, I would time my walks!). The nurses would give stickers to put on the patient’s doors every time you went for a walk. I was determined to have the most stickers on my door and get the record for the most laps! After so much walking in the hospitals, I started to really enjoy it. Even to this day if I’m not up for a workout I’ll just go for a walk instead. I’ve realized that no matter how slow or fast you are it’s just good to be moving your body in some way. So start slow and gradually add time and distance when you feel ready. Even just 15 minutes a day can help improve your overall energy level. I thought about getting a dynamic movement assessment but I thought I would do it when I was even fitter.
Be patient. This was a hard one for me at the beginning. I’m not a patient person. Over these last 2.5 years, I have learned to slow down…with the help of Brandon of course! He’s been there to bring me back to reality when I’ve wanted to do more than I think I could handle. If I said I wanted to ride 100 miles he would look at me and say, “maybe let’s just start with a 25-mile ride.” And, of course, he was right because after about 25 miles I would be exhausted! But, two years after my treatment was complete, we did the WEDU Sport TX 100 in Burnet!
I learned to accept that I would not be able to return to the previous training regimen I had when I was racing professionally. Everyone heals differently. Your recovery depends on a lot on your pre-treatment fitness level and the type of treatments you had. I was very fit and in the best shape of my life before I started treatment. I was able to handle higher doses of chemotherapy, and my Dr. at MD Anderson said that they “Threw the kitchen sink at me” so that I’d have the best chance of beating AML. A lot of my recovery was due to how fit I was pre-treatment.
Add strength training. I lost about 10-15 lbs. of muscle throughout the course of my treatments. I was extremely weak and had very little energy. I remember one day at home I couldn’t even open a jar of spaghetti sauce. It was just me at the house. I walked outside to see if any of the neighbors were around to help, but there was no one around. After some grunting (because that always helps) I finally opened the jar and you would have thought I had won the Olympics! It was the highlight of my day. After that, I knew I needed to incorporate some strength training into my exercise routine. I started with some basic bodyweight movements 3x a week such as… push ups (I could only do one when I started), bench dips, body squats, lunges, and step ups. After I felt comfortable with the body weight exercises I gradually added some light dumbbells into the mix.
Take it one day at a time. Your fatigue levels during and after treatment can change day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. Now that I’m 2.5 years post-treatment, I write a “loose” schedule every Sunday for my week ahead. I aim for two swims, one or two bike rides, three runs, and two strength sessions a week. Depending on the day and how I feel is how I decide how long I will exercise. I usually try to do anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. If I’m really tired or just not feeling up to it I’ll take the day completely off. I also try to take one day off either every week or every 10 days whether I need it or not. When I was racing professionally I had a strict training schedule that I would follow. I would feel guilty if I took the day off. Consistency is good, but I have also learned to listen to my body and be flexible with my schedule depending on how I’m feeling.
I celebrated two years post-stem cell transplant about a month ago. I’m back to exercising about six hours a week and sometimes eight. When I was a professional athlete, my goal was consistency in training each day and each week. After cancer, it was the same, but on a much lighter scale. I try to exercise each day. At a minimum, I’ll take a walk. Just remember: start slow and be patient.