How running and cycling taught me to cope with chemotherapy

Having chemo? Fancy a run?

For many of us, the answer is a firm “no!”, but in our latest blog, Alison fills us in on how her approach to running and cycling has helped her to cope with her treatment for breast cancer, and we think there’s a lot of wisdom in her approach to breaking things down into manageable chunks. Take a read, let us know what you think – and please do share!


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Blog contributor, Alison Carter

Keeping fit and being a healthy weight have been important to me most of my adult life. As a child and in my teens I was hopeless at all sports (always one of the last to be picked for any team), but I spent hours doing ballet and tap, which kept me fit, flexible and gave me an appreciation of what my body could do. I wasn’t an especially good dancer, but I loved it.

My twenties saw me working hard and travelling a lot for my job, with not much time for exercise. Then as I turned 30, I discovered running and a female-only gym. Both these things made being fit accessible to me, and I had a light bulb moment when I realised I didn’t have to be good at something to enjoy it. I am not fast (my best half marathon was 2 hours 6 minutes), but what I don’t have in speed I make up for in determination. And probably most importantly, I discovered the massive endorphin rush, the so called “runner’s high”, that exercise gave me. What a great stress buster!

A few years later, as my right knee started to fail me, a friend suggested we cycle from London to Paris for charity to mark turning 40. Really???140727_North_Downs_Sportive_0114

Before I knew it, I’d bought a bike and was clocking up miles and enjoying the same benefits that running had given me. The charity ride was tough, but awesome and I’m now an avid cyclist. Through all of this, I developed a real appreciation of how amazing my body is. I may never have a flat stomach, but I love what my body can do for me.

The cancer bomb

So, it was a massive curveball when this January I was diagnosed with breast cancer. How could this be? How could this amazing body have cancer in it? Ok, I’ve had stress in my life and enjoyed plenty of wine, but cancer? Me?

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Having breast cancer treatment – with the cold cap!

I know some people feel their body has let them down when they get cancer, but I think it’s just really bad luck. I had no choice about getting cancer, but I can choose how I deal with it. My feeling is that how I treat my body is my best defence against the cancer coming back (my cancer is stage 2, grade 3). And I’m sure that being fit going in to breast cancer treatment has made a difference.

What cycling has taught me 

I’m just about to have my last round of chemotherapy (number six of FEC-T), to be followed by radiotherapy and Tamoxifen. Treatment is tough, but I have been able to bring to it what I have learned from running and cycling, and this has really helped me.

Treatment plans are subject to change, but it’ll be about eight months in total, so, I broke it in to chunks, as I would any long run or bike ride, with five clear stages:

  1. Surgery
  2. Chemo
  3. Radiotherapy
  4. Tamoxifen
  5. Recovery, the new me, after eight months.

When I cycle a long bike ride, such as Ride London, I train for it for months to prepare. Strangely, this is now how I view the last 15-odd years of my adult life: building a physical and emotional resilience that I never knew I’d need until the cancer bomb was dropped.

When I’m on a ride, I’ve learned that breaking it down to goals gets me through. I didn’t invent this, it’s standard practice; your brain usually gives up before your body does in such events, so finding the psychological plan is key. My first goal may be getting to the feed station at mile 19 where I know there’ll be flapjacks and so on. Experience has also shown me that I get a dip midway on all long rides and runs. I start to tire or pain or injuries start to niggle, and the end is not in sight yet.  In my head I desperately want to give up.

My treatment has been so very similar to this: one phase at a time, then one chemotherapy at a time, setting goals and rewards, and remembering that there will be a midway dip, but I’ll get through it.

After chemo round three I fell in to a huge dip, and I could happily have given up at that point. My hair was falling out, everything tasted of cardboard, my veins hurt and I had constant acid reflux and nausea. I was exhausted. Mentally and emotionally I was spent. But I took it one day at a time, just as I would have done on a tough run or ride.

On my good days, as I emerge from the side effects, I go for walks, do a spin class when I feel strong enough (I have to lie down for two hours afterwards!) and make sure I have goals that will give me a sense of purpose and achievement. As a result, during chemo I have done a Race For Life and cycled the Pink Ribbon Tour in London. I also ensure I have plans to see family and friends on my good days. These things exhaust me, but they fill my soul. I’ve learned to pace myself through cancer treatment just as I do through a run or bike ride.

My last chemo is next week. I know I’ll have a tough week where I lose myself to side effects, but one day at a time and it’ll be done. Then I can focus my energies on rebuilding myself ready for the next phase. That first finish line is almost in sight.

For many years, Alison was a fashion buyer. She now leads the creative photo studio for a large UK retailer. Working to to squeeze as much out of life as possible, she can often be found either on her bike, in a theatre, talking to her cat, at an art gallery, or having crazy fun with her niece and nephew. You can follow her blog here.  

For tips on how to support a friend with cancer, take a look at this blog entry. And for a list of things NOT to say to someone with cancer, read our blog here.