Physical activity during and post bowel cancer treatment

Vivianne Pow

Vivianne Pow, 53 year old running enthusiast, continued to exercise whilst receiving treatment for bowel cancer, and after overcoming the disease twice is set to run her first London Marathon. 

Having taken on previous marathons including Paris and Rome, Vivianne Pow, receptionist at BMI Woodlands Hospital, will be running the 26.2 miles at this year’s London Marathon to help raise awareness of Beating Bowel Cancer. In this article, Viv discusses how she remained active during her treatment, which in turn helped her to stay positive and look to life beyond treatment.

I’ve always been relatively active. As a youth (and outside of the usual school PE curriculum) I walked, cycled, and played badminton and volley ball. In 1984, aged 20, I became a police constable so I maintained a reasonable level of fitness walking the beat. I also played squash and swam regularly; I continued to enjoy swimming throughout pregnancy. (Funnily enough I chose water births for both of my sons – not in a swimming pool I hasten to add!).

When I was 39 I decided that I didn’t want to fall into the trap of becoming “fat and forty” so with encouragement from work colleagues I started running during my lunch break and then before or after work. In 2007 I ran the Great North Run – my first half marathon and then somehow I was persuaded to run a marathon. My first was the Paris marathon in 2009 when I was 45 years old. This was followed by marathons at Kielder, Edinburgh and Swaledale during 2010, Kielder again in 2011 and Edinburgh in May 2012. 

Vivianne Pow on the day of her operationVivianne on the day of her operation

My first bowel cancer diagnosis was early October 2012. Key-hole surgery the following month entailed the removal of a section of my colon. As the cancer was a stage 3C malignant tumour I followed a six months course of chemotherapy starting just before Christmas and finishing in June 2013. I continued to go to work during the weeks that I wasn’t receiving chemotherapy.  

Fortunately, my work at that time was as a detective constable financial investigator and was mainly desk based. It was a difficult time as the chemo drugs made me feel tired and ill and I experienced side effects that made my fingers and toes tingly, numb and extremely sensitive to the cold. I also couldn’t bear to drink cold drinks as it felt as if I was trying to swallow thorns! 

However, I had amazing support from my husband, family, friends and my colleagues at work. I managed to walk regularly (well wrapped up and carrying hand warmers) and I even jogged a little and went to the gym when I could muster enough energy. The occasional day when I chose to do no exercise at all were definitely the days when I felt at my worst.

It wasn’t easy pushing myself to keep active but it was incredibly beneficial not just physically but mentally too. I am a great believer in the “green prescription” rewards of keeping active and enjoying plenty of fresh air. Exactly sixteen weeks after completing my course of chemotherapy I ran the Yorkshire marathon and raised funds for Macmillan Cancer Support. 

Vivianne Pow 15 days after surgeryVivianne 15 days after surgeryI did not allow my cancer experience to deter me from the activity I enjoyed; in fact it gave me a greater determination to continue running. My training leading up to the marathon was a gentle increase of running distance and pace, gym based strengthening exercises, Pilates and yoga. 

During early 2014 I received unexpected news that I had another cancerous growth in my bowel. Major surgery in May 2014 involved the removal of all of my colon and the stitching up of my bottom. I now have a permanent ileostomy; I have a bag attached to my belly for the collection of waste products. 

On this occasion it was not necessary to undergo chemotherapy. Initially I was only able to walk short distances as the surgery to my abdominal area was repaired with 32 staples. I recall my stoma nurse advising me that it could be six months before I was able to start running again. Fortunately my consultant suggested that I listen to my body so I started running six weeks after surgery! Again I wanted to show that having bowel cancer and a stoma is not a barrier to continuing life as before. 

Three months post surgery I ran the Darlington 10K race in my personal best (PB) time of 52 minutes 53 seconds. I also set myself the challenge of running the Rome marathon in March 2015 raising funds for the charity Bowel Cancer UK. I completed the 26.2 miles in my PB marathon time of 4 hours, 9 minutes and 40 seconds. 

Viv Pow nowVivianne now

Once again my training involved a mix of cardiovascular activities, weight-bearing exercises at the gym and flexibility work at Pilates and yoga classes. I truly believe that being active prior to, during and after the trauma of cancer treatment enabled my body to recover quickly. It not only assisted with the physical repair of my body, it also provided a coping mechanism for my mental wellbeing.

I’m not suggesting that running is for everyone but it certainly helped me create and maintain a sense of balance and positivity in my life.

What do the specialists say?

Maintaining physical activity during and after cancer treatment has been shown to improve general wellbeing such as fatigue, mood and strength. It has also been shown to reduce cancer recurrence and improve overall survival for some cancers. The most important advice is to avoid inactivity and to keep moving. This can be difficult during cancer treatment, but aiming for a total of 30 minutes of physical activity per day is a good start. 

This could be something like a gentle walk each day, if manageable. After treatment, as energy levels improve, exercise intensity and strength exercises can be increased. Many areas of the country now have exercise programmes for cancer survivors, such as the Active Everyday physical activity programme provided by Macmillan Cancer Support Sheffield.

I discuss exercise and physical activities, both during and after completion of treatment very regularly. One has to give advice with caution as it depends which cancer diagnosis and treatment each individual patient has. For example, some patients with breast cancer are already engaged in fitness programmes and that is okay if they are only going through radiotherapy and not experiencing undue tiredness. However if the patient is unusually tired, I would say to minimise the physical activity until they feel that slowly and steadily they can increase their workout. 

Those patients who are going through immunosuppressive treatment such as chemotherapy I would say to start with minimum workouts, and if they can cope with that then slowly increase the workout. I would also ask patients going through chemotherapy to try and avoid swimming, because chemotherapy affects the immune system's ability to fight infection making the patient more susceptible to germs in the water. I also have quite a few patients who kept on running even during their radiotherapy. My advice to all my patients is to remain active but to do it with caution and when their body tells them to stop, they must.

You can download our free guide to running today! To ensure you are bowel cancer aware, download our free awareness guide or listen to our bowel cancer podcast where our panel discuss the bowel cancer journey from signs, symptoms and screening to diagnostics, treatment and life after bowel cancer. You can support Viv’s London Marathon fundraising efforts by sponsoring her via JustGiving.

For more information including, running tips and injuries, download our free guide to running or take a look at our running injuries infographic.

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