‘3 weeks after starting my health kick I was diagnosed with cancer, but it didn’t stop me’

‘3 weeks after starting my health kick I was diagnosed with cancer, but it didn’t stop me’

A series of stressful life events threw Maree’s diet and exercise regime into disarray. But shortly after getting it back on track, she was faced with her own health challenge. 

2018 was a stressful year for Maree. The then 48-year-old had just lost her mum to pseudomyxoma peritonei (PMP), a rare form of abdominal cancer, and two weeks later, her mother-in-law passed away. All the while, the volunteer breastfeeding counsellor was supporting her youngest son through his final year of school.

As a consequence, Maree’s gym routine slipped. She gained weight due to large portion sizes and calorie-rich foods, and she was drinking more.

“I felt unfit and fat,” she recalls. “I didn’t experience a ‘lowest point’, although I recall feeling very unattractive when seeing myself in my son’s high school graduation photos.”

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By mid-2019, Maree knew she had to get herself back on track. She joined Genesis Health + Fitness, signing up for their Coaching Zone 6 Week Challenge. But three weeks later, Maree was confronted with a different kind of health obstacle.

It was during one of her volunteer shifts. Maree had just taken three calls from women who needed help triggering the let-down reflex—the release of milk from the breast—when Maree noticed soreness and a lump in her own breast.

“It didn’t feel big on the surface and it did not occur to me that it might be cancer,” she says.

“However, when it was still there two weeks later, I went to see my GP who sent me for a mammogram.”

It was indeed breast cancer, a diagnosis Maree received merely three days before her birthday. “It was a real shock to the system,” she recalls. She remembers the radiologist crying upon reading her results.

“I thought, ‘What does it mean? Does it mean it’s really advanced and I will die? Should I comfort him?’”

Maree would endure surgery and radiotherapy to eliminate the cancer, and will be on endocrine treatment for the next four years. But apart from a six-week, post-surgery break from Coaching Zone classes, Maree got the go-ahead from her doctor to go back to the gym. And so she did, not only to prime her body for treatment, but to gain back some of the control she felt she lost after her diagnosis.

“I decided I wasn’t going to let my diagnosis stop me from improving my health,” she says. “I knew that with everything so out of control, it would be good to have control over at least one thing: how many exercise sessions I could attend each week.”

Even during the Christmas holidays, Maree managed to knock out three sessions a week. While there were some initial aches and pains, she enjoyed feeling stronger and fitter. Her diet faced an overhaul, too.

“I began to record everything I ate into a diary,” she says.

“It was apparent once I started recording what I ate where I was going wrong in my diet—my portions of meat, bread, and other calorie-rich foods were far too high. I cut back on those while ensuring that I still consumed an adequate amount of protein.”

Combining regular gym sessions with a healthy, balanced diet has enabled Maree to drop 20.5kg. But the fitness classes served a higher purpose; acting as a “circuit-breaker” for stress.

“I find the gym classes offer a real opportunity to be mindful – your only job is to maintain correct form and do the exercise for the allotted time, with your heart rate in the desired zone,” she says.

“I found this very therapeutic, particularly while in the active part of my cancer treatment.”

Maree says her experience has taught her the incredible resilience of the human body. Her advice to others is to go easy on yourself and don’t let the occasional slip-up defeat you.

“There will be times where you do not live up to your hopes and expectations – you may skip a class or have a binge day,” she says.

“It will make little difference to your journey unless you let it – dust yourself off, recommit and get back on track.”

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