Catherine completed Cancer Support UK’s Cancer Coach programme in 2022, following surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer. Here, she has written about her experience of Nordic walking, which helped her both physically – particularly with post treatment Lymphoedema, – and emotionally. Catherine is a Communications Volunteer with Cancer Support UK.
“I love walking. For me, striding out in the fresh air makes every problem seem more manageable, even breast cancer. First, I walked to digest the diagnosis. Then, with my surgical drain hidden in a bag, I walked to try to feel in control again following the mastectomy. In between rounds of chemotherapy, although I could only make it to the end of the road, I put one foot in front of another to try to combat the fatigue. But I didn’t discover Nordic walking until I developed Lymphoedema.
“Lymphoedema is a term that strikes fear into many cancer patients who have had surgery to remove lymph nodes. When lymph fluid can’t pump around the body properly it can build up and cause limbs to swell, leaving some sufferers facing a lifetime of wearing compression garments, skin problems and mobility issues.
“Developing Lymphoedema in my hand and arm, just as my cancer treatment was finishing, came as a devastating blow. On top of anxiety about recurrence, I now had a new scary thing to get my head around. Fortunately, I learnt that Lymphoedema can be managed with exercise, and as mine was relatively mild, I wanted to keep it that way.
“So, exhausted and compulsively checking my swelling, I went looking for something – anything – that might help. I also needed a safe way to build up the strength that had been destroyed by six rounds of chemo.
“I saw an article on the benefits of Nordic walking and signed up for an introductory course with my local group, Sherwood Nordic Walking. I explained why I was joining and instructor Tracy Hall reassured me that this new activity was exactly what I needed.
“In Nordic walking you use specially-designed poles to push off from the ground and propel yourself forward. As you use your upper body and swing your arms much more than with ordinary walking, it is especially good for improving strength and flexibility after breast surgery. Also, because you open and close your hands to grab and release the poles, Nordic walking is very good at pumping lymph fluid around the body, potentially helping to manage Lymphoedema.
“When I went to my first session at Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire, I was feeling nervous. It was just two months after the end of my treatment and my large-brimmed hat hid my newly regrowing hair and protected my sensitive post-chemo skin from the sun. I was conscious of my appearance, but I was soon concentrating on the technique and laughing along with others at our mistakes.
“It was a lovely warm September morning and striding out with the poles felt wonderfully empowering, especially after recently feeling so weak and vulnerable.
“This introductory course led to regular walks with the group in beautiful locations from country parks to canal towpaths. After the enforced isolation of having treatment during the pandemic I enjoyed discovering new places and meeting new people. Some of the other walkers had also experienced breast cancer, but over coffee afterwards it was nice to just chat about “normal” things and forget cancer for a while.
“Physically, I was getting stronger and my Lymphoedema was under control. So I presumed that feeling more confident in my body would mean that I felt more positive in my mind, too. But that wasn’t the case. I hadn’t appreciated the emotional toll cancer takes. No-one prepares you for how low you are likely to feel after your hospital treatment ends. So I joined a Cancer Coach support group, where I met people who were struggling like I was.
“During the six-week programme, I expressed fears that I’d been bottling up for months. Together we learnt that our negative feelings were completely normal and we were given tools to help manage those emotions.
“Cancer Coach also helped me realise that although walking on its own wasn’t enough, it was – and still is – an important part of my emotional recovery. Previously, feeling down had sometimes prevented me from going out with the Nordic walking group. But the course helped me identify the start of a negative spiral and I learnt that, for me, the best way to stop it taking hold was to put on my boots and leave the house.
“Everyone has their own coping strategies – dancing, knitting, deep breathing exercises – whatever works for you is fine. But for me it is going outside and performing the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other.”
You can learn more about Nordic walking and find your nearest instructor from British Nordic Walking. Many groups offer a range of walks for all fitness levels. In addition, some cancer support centres offer sessions along with other wellbeing activities. To hear more information on cancer and Nordic walking listen to this podcast. The Lymphoedema Support Network offers advice and support for anyone living with Lymphoedema.
Cancer Support UK’s Cancer Coach programme is available to anyone previously diagnosed with a stage 3 or below cancer and who has now completed their physical cancer treatment. The course takes participants through a series of weekly facilitated group sessions, run for a six-week period over the telephone or online video. Participants benefit from the peer support of the sessions, as well as learning tools and techniques for improving emotional wellbeing, which can help them on their recovery journey. The course is free, completely confidential and accessible from the comfort and privacy of home.
If you’ve completed cancer treatment, but are experiencing low mood, anxiety, worry, and don’t know how to move forward in your recovery, then please apply to join the course. Simply complete the application form online. If you have any questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call: 020 3983 7616.