I can truthfully say that the gym has never been my natural habitat but I am definitely now a convert. My weekly sessions with Christina have become a vital part of my own living well with cancer programme.
Back in 2012 while the rest of the UK was focused on the Olympics, I discovered completely out of the blue that I have a rare form of bone-marrow cancer called ‘Multiple Myeloma’. It is something a bit like Leukaemia, but affects different (plasma) cells in the blood. It is very unusual, particularly in females and in those under the age of 50 and so I was lucky that my GP was astute enough to spot it. By the time it was discovered, I already had lytic lesions in my ribs, spine and neck. My bones had become so fragile that I fractured my ribs quite a number of times as a result of doing normal activities such as driving over a speed hump or being hugged by a friend. This made me very nervous of exercise altogether.
Following treatment and a successful autologous (i.e. without a donor) stem cell transplant which put me in complete remission, I went back to work as a teacher and was puzzling over what kind of exercise I could do that would not involve breaking any bones or catching a cold. During my staged return to work I had been going to some daytime Yoga classes but once working full time, I didn’t have the time or the energy to do a full class in the evening. During my stay at Kings, I had been given a booklet published by Macmillan, stressing the importance of regular exercise. This advice, of course, is not rocket science but finding something more strenuous than walking the dog was the challenge.
On New Year’s Eve 2014, I made a resolution to find some form of regular exercise that I could realistically commit to. A couple of friends had been recently singing the praises of the ‘Better Body Group’ gym and had mentioned that there was a sports therapist on the team. My first impression of ‘Better Body’ was not of instant joy as there is nothing aesthetically pleasing about the building, but as soon as I started talking to Christina I could see that I had come to the right place.
Christina did a very thorough assessment of my ‘fitness’ which was at very low ebb indeed after all the high-dose chemotherapy and other treatment I had been through. I could not hold the plank position for even a second and my balance was terrible. Christina was full of optimism that she could plan me a special programme to build up some strength and stamina with minimal risk of injury.
Under normal circumstances, there is no way I would have considered doing mild exercises on a gym ball while everyone around me was pumping iron but the benefit of a personal trainer is that you can focus on their instruction and block out what is going on around you. There is a feeling of being protected. I have had gym membership in pre-cancer days and then failed to turn up using excuses of busyness and boredom with the programme of exercises. With Christina, not only does she prepare a different circuit of exercises every week but there is that personal commitment of needing to turn up to a booked session. On top of that, there are the snatched moments of conversation, humorous moments and news to catch up on/look forward to from week to week.
Throughout the past twenty months of training, I have built up strength, stamina, flexibility and balance. I can hold a decent plank position for a good 30 seconds instead of none and I can walk up hill to the railway station from my home without stopping for breath. I know I am strengthening my bones with weight-bearing exercises. It hasn’t been about weight loss or body shape; it has been about confidence and survival. The strangest thing is that I even enjoy it!
It is hard to explain how much of a huge difference it has made to me training with someone who has been willing to take me on with my lack of fitness, working so patiently through many tiny steps. I have not sustained any pain or injury during my time at the gym which could have so easily been a different story without a qualified sports therapist as my personal trainer.
Christina is also a brilliant people-person. The battle with cancer can easily undermine one’s confidence and as a not very sporty person in any case, my confidence in the environment of a gym has never been great – until now, with Christina by my side cheering me on to each new step.
The experience of surviving something like a stem-cell transplant is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t been through something similar but it is like being given a second chance at life, at least for a while. With my exercise plan sorted, I am grasping this chance with both hands and enjoying it.