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How we are walking, biking and getting fit to fight cancer

 

By Lee Henry

A traumatic diagnosis left these four Northern Ireland people reeling, but thanks to Macmillan's Move More initiative they've all found new hope and new friends through exercise.

‘We recently walked up Divis mountain and it was brilliant’

Karen Dougan (55), is married and lives in North Down, and writes a blog called Breast Foot Forward. She says:

Originally I'm from just outside of Portsmouth, in Hampshire, and I moved to Northern Ireland in 1998 after falling in love with a Northern Irish man. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 3, 2017, a date indelibly printed on my brain.

A couple of weeks before that, I had found quite a firm lump in my armpit. I managed to get an appointment at the hospital the following Monday and I was diagnosed on Monday night, following an ultrasound, a biopsy and a mammogram. 

I have to say, I've never known a feeling like it, being told that I had cancer. I couldn't believe it at first. I heard the words but they didn't register. The next week was quite difficult. I was very upset. It was overwhelming because there was just so much information to digest. I thought the worst. I didn't know if I was coming or going.

Then I started to get my head around it a little bit. I ended up having surgery on May 2, a lumpectomy, when I had my lymph nodes removed. I also had a bone scan and a CT scan to see if the cancer had spread and that was a pretty horrible experience, but luckily it hadn't, and that was reassuring. 

The breast cancer is Grade 2, it's treatable and oestrogen-positive. The oncologist suggested that I would need chemotherapy for 18 weeks and then radiotherapy for three weeks, plus 10 years of hormone therapy.

I had my hair clipped, because I knew I was going to lose it, so I decided to go shorter and shorter in order to be psychologically prepared for losing my hair, which I did. There are other side effects. My nails are starting to go black and fall off, for example. Thankfully, though, I haven't been too fatigued.

That's why I wanted to join MacMillan's Move More, because I wanted to get out and about and do some exercise. I didn't want to sit indoors and let this thing get me, let the treatment take over my life. And I've loved every minute of it.

Initially, I set goals, trying to do 150 minutes of exercise per week. I learned about various classes at the Aurora Centre in Bangor and about the positive effects of fitness.

There is a great mix of people, individuals who are going through treatment, who are in remission, who are taking part in cancer trials.

We recently took part in a walk up Divis Mountain in Belfast and it was such a brilliant day. Personally, I love being around people who know what I'm going through, who understand the processes. The time that we have together is so much fun.

From a physical point of view, it's not about going hell for leather every time. I've been to a couple of sessions when I've felt particularly drained and I was able to do a little bit and then sit down and not feel stupid.

Being with like-minded people, sharing stories and even exchanging medical things, like bandages that maybe someone doesn't need anymore, in turn creates a sense of camaraderie.

I'm so glad I discovered Move More. It's just the support network I need."

'The proudest moment of my life was doing Lap of the Lough'

Robert Davidson (45) lives in Ballyclare with his wife Shona (45) and daughters Amy (16) and Jessica (9). He says:

I was a very keen cyclist before my diagnosis and would usually have averaged between 5-7,000 miles per year on the bike, which included commuting to and from work in Belfast. In October 2015, however, a lump appeared on the left side of my neck.

Two or three weeks later, I decided to go to the doctor, who sent me straight to the Antrim Hospital where, after many tests, they told me that they were 99% sure I had lymphoma. I had to ask, 'What's that?'

When I discovered that it was cancer of my lymph glands, but that I would need more tests and a biopsy to be sure, I must say the tears ran down my face and my life did flash in front of me. It was not what I had expected at all.

I was officially diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma on January 12, 2016, and my treatment started shortly after in Laurel House, Antrim. I underwent both chemotherapy and radiotherapy but continued to work as a bus driver with Translink during both.

The following June, I attended a seminar run by the Northern Trust in the Ross Park Hotel in Ballymena, where Shona and I met all the MacMillan representatives, including Alan McCausland from the Move More programme.

Shona kindly volunteered me for the class - without me knowing anything about it - and I soon realised that I was down to attend a class on Friday morning at 10.30am in Antrim Leisure Centre.

Up to that point, it was very difficult for me to maintain any fitness at all, as I was so badly fatigued and had been on various medications including steroids for approximately six months.

I had gone from a very fit 15.5 stone to 23 stone and so as you can imagine I was very overweight, unfit and down.

I reluctantly went to the class, which took place in a dance studio with mirrored walls. A large crowd of ladies and just two men were there, so I was very nervous, but straightaway Alan came over, shook my hand and said, 'Great to see you, big man. Thanks for coming'. He announced me to the class. 'Right girls, here's some young eye candy for you!'

I paired up with one of the guys and my friendship began with him, as with so many others, by the end of the class. Everyone was so nice and welcoming and we spoke openly about our illnesses and journeys. It was the first time I had really connected with people with the same symptoms as myself. I suddenly realised that I wasn't on my own.

When they found out that I used to cycle, it was suggested that we could do the Lap the Lough, to which I laughed, thinking that there was no way I could do it. But they ordered a new bike through the Cycle to Work scheme, and the training began. I think my first run out was four miles.

I came home totally busted, but I built myself up over the next eight months, with some good days and some bad days, and in August 2017 I completed the lap, raising £1,300 in the process.

I am very proud of my achievements in life but that is my proudest moment, for myself but especially for MacMillan, which close to my heart.

Today, I am officially in remission. I still find it hard some days but I live by the advice of my consultant, Dr McCluskey. 'Fight the fatigue with exercise.' I have continued to cycle and am hoping to complete 3,500 miles in 2017."

'I had heart disease, was in a wheelchair and had put  on four stone'

Roy Moorhead (59) lives in Killinchy with his wife Carol (59) and has three grown-up children, Christopher (35), Gareth (33) and Nicole (31). He says:

I became involved with the MacMillan Move More initiative after seeing an advert in a local newspaper. I phoned the number and soon after I started an exercising programme.

My former working life as a self-employed milkman gave me the opportunity to have an active job in the fresh, pure morning air. In the 36 years that I was in the job, l met thousands of people and became friendly with many, some of whom still text me two and a half years later to ask about my health.

I was diagnosed with myelodysplasia in March 2015. I suppose in layman's terms it's a type of bone marrow cancer. According to the books, it's incurable, but my treatment - and I'd like to think my personal fight against it - is keeping me from falling down the abyss. So far, so good.

Up to the point of diagnosis, I'd been attending a haematologist because I'd also been diagnosed with another rare disease, hemochromatosis. I'd attended that haematologist so many times, and had become friendly with him, that when that piece of paper was slipped across the table, it was clear that he found it difficult. There wasn't any idle chit-chat that day.

My mum died in her 70s from lung cancer, due in part, no doubt, to many years of smoking, but there was I, who'd never smoked in my life and had led a relatively good lifestyle, diagnosed with cancer.

I had to become a wheelchair-user as a result of a spinal stenosis (when a bone channel narrows) diagnosis and from being very active in my job I became so inactive that I had put on four stone in weight. I knew that, as someone who also has heart disease, I had to tackle the weight and inactivity issues.

Move More gave me the opportunity to get my body and mind in better condition, which is the aim of the initiative, and also to gain new friends who are also living and dealing with the cancer experience. That is a valuable contribution to a lonely struggle.

Now, I'm going to a Move More exercise class a couple of days in the week in which I'm either cycling intensely during a one-to-one class with our Move More assistant or collapsing in a heap laughing because I can't move my left foot forwards whilst moving my right hand backwards or something silly like that during the weekly group session.

I'm also able to devote more time to cooking and to tackling those many little maintenance jobs around the house that were so easy to put on the back burner.

In addition, I've become much more au fait on the latest power tools on the market.

My attitude to life has changed a little. I'm more outgoing and friendly, trying to improve each day. As the time-honoured cliche goes, I treat every day as if it's my last. As long as Move More is around, I'll be a dedicated follower."

'It was difficult starting the class but I'm so glad I did it'

Jim Newland (72) is a pensioner who lives alone in Antrim. He has four children, Iain (39), Natalie (35), Jennifer (33) and Stephanie (26). He says:

I received a bowel cancer test through the post one day and it lay on my kitchen table for a while. My daughter, Natalie, was visiting and asked me what it was. She reminded me that my mother had died of cancer of the bowel and liver, so I did the test and posted it back.

An appointment was arranged at the hospital to check if I would be fit enough to have a colonoscopy and they agreed that it could go ahead. After the procedure, the doctor told me I had cancer. Natalie was with me and she broke down crying but I told her to stop, as it would start me off.

Thankfully, the operation was a success and part of my bowel was removed. It couldn't have gone any better. Then home to recuperate. The experience at Antrim Area Hospital was excellent and it still is every time I am up there for my check-ups.

I was certainly in shock and very surprised to initially learn that I had cancer, but I kept strong and got on with life. My 70th birthday was attended by all four of my children. Not knowing if I would have another birthday, they overdid it on my presents, with meals out, a photoshoot, a steam train experience in Scotland and the live Mrs Brown Show.

Before my diagnosis, I was never very active, except for pottering around my garden and doing odd jobs around the house. But I had contact with MacMillan about a wellbeing meeting in the Forum Gym in Antrim and I turned up not knowing what to expect. I sure did learn a lot about the bowel.

That was when I was introduced to the Move More project, and I have not looked back since. Yes, it was difficult starting the class, meeting new people, but I am so glad I did it. I am a walk leader now and a volunteer gardener at Clotworthy House at Antrim Castle.

Move More has helped me through the after-effects of cancer. We have a laugh so that everyone in our groups can try to put their cancer problems to the back of their minds for a little while.

Looking after my grandkids is something to look forward to in the future. My youngest granddaughter lives in Scotland and I go over there every month for a week to see her.

Speaking to the surgeon last time, I was told that if I had not done the test and had the operation I would have been riddled with cancer and not alive today. So my advice to those offered the cancer test is, please do. Don't be one of the 50% who don't."

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