Last November as we began winding down in the Pilates studio and heading towards end of year celebrations, Anita received the news that everyone dreads. She had been diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer.
Anita would have to be one of the very last people I would have expected to be in this situation and I’m sure I was just as shocked as she was.
Having been attending my Pilates studio for 6 years at the time of her diagnosis, I knew that with her fierce determination and positive attitude she would beat this. In October 2018, I first featured Anita in a blog post entitled “Anita Takes Control Of Her Health & Fitness – A Pilates Journey” which describes her dramatic weight loss and her Pilates and fitness journey. I’ve always believed that maintaining your health and fitness at the highest level possible is vital for a good recovery if faced with an unexpected injury or illness and Anita’s experience reinforces this theory perfectly. At 62 years of age, she is stronger and fitter than most 25-year-olds and she continued to walk, practice Pilates and swim throughout her treatment. She is currently working on regaining her previous fitness level and only 1 week after finishing chemotherapy, she was back doing Advanced Pilates workouts on my site JS Mind Body Pilates and feeling great.
Anita has kindly agreed to share her story to inspire others who may be facing a similar situation. So let’s go back to November 2019 and follow her cancer journey.
Your cancer diagnosis was completely unexpected. What was your initial reaction? I was shocked. Up to this point I had routine bowel kit tests, always clear. I had been a regular gym-goer for many years, practiced Pilates and followed a healthy diet with no family history of colon cancer. The positive result this time was totally unexpected. A colonoscopy was booked very quickly. The results showed 4 polyps. Three were removed during that procedure, the fourth, a tumour had to be removed during an operation.
What was the prognosis & what treatments were suggested? The tumour was removed as well as all the lymph nodes from the bowel. I never knew there were lymph nodes there! Unfortunately, the cancer had spread to a small number of nodes. When I was told I had Stage 3 colon cancer and would need 6 months of chemotherapy, I was very upset and worried despite my oncologist reassuring me that the odds were in my favour, with a very positive prognosis of a full recovery.
You agreed to take part in two studies before you started the treatment. How did this change the course of the treatment?
The first study was looking at the effect of chemotherapy on balance. As a sufferer of motion sickness, I wasn’t sure this study was for me! However, I was reassured that I could stop the study at any time. I had to wear a virtual head-set and stand on the spot while the image I was looking at gradually began to move in waves. I was timed as to how long I could stand without moving. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated. The second study was called “Circulating Tumour DNA Trial” and looked at measuring the amount of tumour DNA in my body through regular blood tests. I learned that tumours have their own specific DNA profile and traces are left in the body even after removal. Currently, patients are all treated with the same chemotherapy drugs and duration. This study treats each patient individually so that treatment can be more targeted and adjusted as necessary. Fortunately for me, my blood tests showed that after just the first round of chemotherapy, my tumour markers were at a very low level and therefore my chemo treatment would be reduced from 6 months (12 rounds) to 3 months (6 rounds). I was over the moon at this news and hugely grateful for having the opportunity to participate in this study. It is hoped that eventually, this will become the standard for every patient worldwide undergoing chemotherapy.
I’ve also agreed to take part in a third trial looking at the long term effects of exercise post-chemo, specifically for Stage 2 & 3 colon cancer. I haven’t started yet so I don’t know which group I’ll be randomly allocated to: Group A: consult with exercise physiologist, keep a diary, group sessions, exercise plan or Group B: handed literature with exercise recommendations, left to own devices. This study will go for about 10 years. I’m excited to be part of it as I think it will help my motivation to keep it up!
I know the post-surgery period was quite difficult as you were advised to reduce any load on your abdominal muscles for 6 weeks, meaning you couldn’t do Pilates and had to limit some other activities. How did you get through this period? I learned the hard way! I thought I could resume many of my regular activities, including my hour-long Pilates sessions and walking the bay, but I quickly learned I needed to let my body heal first. My stomach was very sore where the cut was from the tumour operation and clearly I had to let that area recover before putting any stress on it. I was also quite tired from the chemo, so I had regular naps during the day. If I was up to it, I would go for short walks nearby.
You were ready to begin gentle abdominal strengthening after the 6 week healing period, just as my Pilates studio closed for the Christmas break. Fortunately, you could go back to basics by following my site, JS Mind Body Pilates Online. How successful was this for you? Perfect timing on your part Joanne! I was so lucky to have your online videos available. It always felt like you were in the room with me. Initially, I would follow your specific recommendations, then as I became more confident and stronger I would pick and choose my own selection. I started at the beginning, re-capping the breathing techniques and both re-establishing & gradually strengthening the abdominal connections before going through all the Basics Level before progressing.
Chemotherapy can be daunting due to the possible side effects. What was your experience of chemo and did you suffer any side effects? I was terrified at the thought of chemo. However, my experience was much better than I ever expected. I was told I would not lose my hair, so that gave me a big boost! Apart from tiredness, I had very minor issues such as sensitivity to touching and eating cold things which dissipated 4 or 5 days following each chemo round. I had hardly any nausea or tummy issues. The only negative was the extra kilos I gained due to the steroid medication.
How did you feel when you completed your final round of chemo and then received the all-clear 2 weeks later? I felt absolutely elated! It all seemed to be over so quickly.
What advice would you offer people who are going through the same experience? Firstly, I would say to always do your bowel kit test as soon as you receive it. My surgeon told me that the duration it took for the cancer to spread outside the bowel was just six months. I was glad I had not delayed in doing mine! Just another month could have meant a different outcome for me. Secondly, if you are offered the opportunity to participate in a trial, the results could benefit not just your current treatment, but other patients in the future. Also, listen to your body and if you’ve been a regular exerciser and Pilates devotee like I am, know that any fitness gained will help during and after treatment.
That’s great advice Anita and thank you for agreeing to share your cancer journey. I’m sure your experience will help others to successfully navigate their way through this confronting disease. If you would like to follow a Pilates program that is designed for post-surgery recovery that is also beneficial during chemo, sign up for JS Mind Body Pilates Online free 10 day trial. It’s been so inspiring to see how you have beaten cancer, Anita and I look forward to seeing your continued Pilates progress in the future!