Bowel Cancer Awareness Month – Jo’s Story

Admin Cancer and Exercise, Cancer Survival, Exercise for Cancer, Exercise Oncology, Exercise Physiology

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Bowel Cancer affects 1 in 13 Australians and is the second deadliest cancer in Australia. Sadly, Bowel Cancer is becoming more common in young people like Jo who was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer just before her 30th birthday. Jo started with Movement Against Cancer (MAC) in the middle of last year and we recently had a chat with Jo about her experience being a young person diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Movement Against Cancer: Hi Jo, first off tell us a little bit about your journey that brought you to attending DNA Health Group as part of our Movement Against Cancer program?

I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in May 2019 while living in Ireland as a visiting scientist. After months of abdominal discomfort, blood in my stools, a change in bowel habits, and increased fatigue, a colonoscopy found the cause of these symptoms to be bowel cancer. Plans were quickly made for my return to Australia and at the end of May I had a bowel resection with 166mm of my colon and 42 lymph nodes removed.

Prior to my diagnosis I was quite physically active attending gym a couple of times a week for strength-based training, the occasional Pilates class, and plenty of swing dancing.

MAC: What prompted you to seek out an exercise physiologist during your cancer treatment? What were your goals?

Attending a University Alumni function in 2016 I heard Dr Mandy Hagstrom present new research on how breast cancer patients and survivors were benefitting from resistance training.

2.5years before my own cancer diagnosis, by chance I heard about new research on the benefits of exercise for cancer patients and survivors.

Fast forward to June 2019 and I learnt I needed chemotherapy. When I met my oncologist I asked about the benefits of exercising for bowel cancer patients. While my oncologist encouraged me to stay active, they couldn’t answer my questions about the amount and type of exercise I should be doing. I turned to the Internet and my scientist colleagues for answers. I realised that an exercise physiologist who specialised in working with people living with cancer would be the best person to help me exercise safely during my treatment.

I started at MAC just after my first round of chemotherapy. A big part of the initial attraction to MAC was the group classes for cancer patients as well as being 10 minutes drive from my house. I came to MAC wanting to safely exercise throughout my chemotherapy treatment with my goals being to minimise muscle wastage and strength loss, use exercise as a tool to help combat chemotherapy side effects, and improve my long-term survivorship outlook

MAC: What did your exercise program during treatment involve? Do you feel that it helped you progress towards the goals you mentioned?

Initially, I started at MAC with some one-on-one classes with oncology-trained exercise physiologist Michael for extra support learning my gym program and adjusting to exercising with a chemotherapy port and abdominal scars.

My chemotherapy was 3 days a fortnight for 12 cycles. I struggled more with side effects during treatment week, so home-based workouts were more practical. Michael helped set me up with an achievable resistance-based program that I could perform at home. The flexibility of working out at home meant it was easy to time my training to when my energy levels were best. In my non-treatment week – when my energy levels were better – I’d come and train as part of the MAC group classes performing a resistance-based program tailored to my fitness and energy levels using equipment at the clinic.

I also walked most days and got family and friends involved in a “chemo-day” routine. We would head to hospital early and go for a walk for about 30 minutes before stopping for coffee – and usually cake – prior to checking into the day therapy ward.

Windy winter walks pre-chemo with Dad

Exercising under the supervision of MAC during treatment helped me to meet my goal of exercising safely throughout chemotherapy. I feel that this helped me complete all 12 cycles of chemotherapy without any delays or complications.

MAC: How has participating in exercise during your cancer treatment and into recovery
helped you?

I was treated with a particularly aggressive form of chemotherapy. During my fortnightly reviews with my oncologist I was told that I was tolerating my chemotherapy regime very well compared to many other patients on the same regime. I am certain that my overall fitness – due to several years of regular strength training and cardio – and continuing to be physically active throughout treatment played an important role in this. I had relatively little nausea, which can be a common side effect of my particular chemotherapy drugs. Fatigue gradually accumulated over the 6 months however I had enough energy to do a little bit of work during the weeks I wasn’t having treatment and again attribute this to prioritising my physical fitness.

On top of the exercise itself, I have found that the MAC community has been a massive support over the past year. While I was often the youngest in class, the shared cancer experiences created a welcoming, supportive environment to be a part of.

It’s now nearly 6 months since I finished treatment. One of the most enduring side effects of treatment has been fatigue. However, sticking with a regular exercise routine has been helpful for managing this, improving my sleep, and supporting my mental health. During the recent COVID situation I participated in MAC’s online group exercise classes and arranged Zoom exercise dates with friends. That helped me establish, as well as maintain, a regular exercise routine throughout lockdown. With restrictions easing I’ve re-joined weekly MAC group exercise classes in the clinic and am continuing to do a mix of Pilates, yoga, resistance training and swing dancing from home. To challenge myself (& improve my cardio fitness) I’ve also signed up for a fun run later this year!

Walks were always easier with my walking buddy

MAC: If you could pass on any advice to anyone living with cancer considering exercise physiology as part of their treatment or recovery what would that be? 

Regular exercise is important for both physical and mental health, in particular for cancer patients, throughout the various stages of treatment. This isn’t always discussed during appointments with your treatment team and it definitely should be. Having the support of an exercise physiologist who specialises in oncology gave me the confidence to exercise during treatment and into recovery. It wasn’t always easy summoning the energy to workout but I’m yet to regret a day I found the energy to put on my runners and moved my body – even if all I could manage was a walk around the block. I highly recommend seeing an exercise physiologist to develop a tailored exercise plan to support your treatment and recovery from cancer.

MAC: As a young person yourself living with cancer, you are passionate about sharing your story and resources that may help others that may be going through similar circumstances and feeling a little lost.

After my cancer diagnosis I trusted my medical team to make the best possible decisions around my surgery, chemotherapy regime, and now follow-up scans and monitoring. However, I believe that involving other allied health professionals in your care has additional benefits. I’m thankful to have been able to see an exercise physiologist, a dietician, a psychologist, and receive acupuncture treatment regularly. These have all individually contributed to improving my overall health throughout my treatment and into recovery.

I’ve often been the youngest person in the many waiting rooms I’ve frequented over the last year. Connecting with and hearing the experiences of other young cancer patients and survivors has been incredibly helpful for me. I started a blog to share my cancer story to help contribute to the conversation around cancer in young adults. I hope that it can help raise awareness of increasing rates of bowel cancer in young adults and help others who also find themselves – or their loved ones – facing a cancer diagnosis. My blog can be accessed here

Thanks MAC for letting me share my bowel cancer and exercise story

MAC: Thanks so much Jo for taking the time to have a chat with us and for sharing your story. It has been incredibly rewarding for us to be involved in your exercise journey and we know that you are only going to continue to smash your goals!

Jo has been kind enough to highlight a few resources that she as a young cancer patient has found helpful:

  • Bowel Cancer Australia’s Peer-to-Peer support network
  • Cancer Council’s Reclaim Life group counselling program (25 – 40 years)
  • UK based cancer charity Trekstock supports people in their 20s and 30s with a cancer diagnosis. They have some great online resources
  • The Facebook groups “Cancer Chicks” (~under 40 years) and “Bowel Babes” (all ages)
  • Instagram account @thecancerpatient for dark humour
  • Instagram hashtags like #nevertooyoung

If you resonate with Jo’s story and feel like you too would benefit from working with an exercise physiologist please do not hesitate to give us a call on 9555 1221 to book in with one of our oncology-trained exercise physiologists or just to have a chat about how exercise can help improve your overall health and quality of life while living with cancer.