"I’m tallish and lean, but apparently that doesn’t equal fit"


Before his cancer diagnoses Andrew considered himself to be fighting fit but all that quickly changed and he soon realised he needed exercise to help him heal.

In early 2010, I was 45 years old, in the prime of my professional life and totally in control of everything.

I was 185cm tall and weighed about 78kg, so I thought I was travelling pretty well on the health front as well.

That year, a routine blood test identified an elevated PSA [prostate specific antigen] score of 5.0, so my GP thought I better get that checked out. At first I brushed it aside thinking I was perfectly fine, but after some prodding by my wife I visited an urologist … just to get that ticked off. He noted a small lump on my prostate and followed that up with a biopsy. The pathology report came back clear, so that was the end of that. What a waste of time!

About three years later I had another blood test that showed my PSA was even higher. Another biopsy …. all clear again.

By November 2015, my PSA score was at 6.0 – significantly above the normal limit of 4.0. I thought, let’s play it safe and have yet another biopsy. This time, my self-assurance was splintered by a positive diagnosis for early stage prostate cancer. The good news is that it’s typically a slow moving form of the disease, with many men dying “with it” rather than “of it”. Mine was also localised and not considered a threat, so no need for surgery or radiation therapy. I had the luxury of a period of “active surveillance”. The caveat was that (at 51) I was younger than most other men with the condition, so the cancer would have more time to carry out its work.

In September 2017, almost two years post-diagnosis, the latest biopsy brings bad news. I’m one of the unlucky ones - the cancer is aggressive, and it is accelerating. I’m already past the option of radiation therapy with surgery heavily favoured while it’s still confined.

I had a fantastic surgeon. The surgery is expected to succeed, but there will be consequences. Cancer is a trade-off between an insidious disease and the fall-out from its treatment.

Anyone that has a prostatectomy will suffer some vile legacy complications that are an affront to your self-esteem, lifestyle-disruptive and, in my case, can bring on depressive episodes that cause you to withdraw socially.

Two days after the surgery, I am at home and at the beginning of the long road back. I have timed the operation to the minute. The cancer was at the perimeter of the organ and ready to spread to neighbouring healthy tissue. As bad as it seems now, I was perilously close to an even harsher reality. For the next week I have to wear a catheter, which was the first psychological blow, albeit a temporary one. Removing it was a relief, but opened the door to a deeper challenge: the indignity of incontinence.

I caught my first break a couple of days later when I stumbled across an article in the Herald Sun about an exercise program called “Ex-Med”. It’s brand new, affiliated with the Peter MaCallum Cancer Centre, and they are looking for 40 participants to take part in a pilot study aimed at using exercise as a primary rehabilitation for cancer patients.

I was accepted on the program and had my first physical appraisal in January 2018, which blew away the myth of my self-appraised high standards of fitness. Yeah, I’m tallish and lean, but apparently that doesn’t equal fit. A simple walking test cruelly exposed my limitations. So begins my 12-week fitness odyssey with nine other cancer patients.

Ex-Med provides a program tailored to your condition, treatment, age & physical capabilities. They challenge you to have specific personal goals. I had two: get over the incontinence, and achieve a level of aerobic fitness that would transform me from an average walker to a force with the running group at work.

My exercise program mainly focused on aerobic training, to keep my body weight light – to minimise impact on my incontinence – and to accelerate recovery from the surgery. I was given light, weight-based exercises to build my core strength, but that were also gentle on my abdomen, which was still delicate. I was also prescribed pelvic floor stretches to target the incontinence.

The 12 weeks were easier than I expected because I fed off the team camaraderie. This wasn’t a support group that sits around a table talking about cancer. We were doing something positive.

At the end of May, I had my exit assessment. I no longer suffered from incontinence. Six months earlier, I fretted at the thought of a crowded restaurant for fear of what could happen. I even had to prepare for the commute to work, just to be sure I could make it. Now, there are no pads and no worries. How do I know it was the exercise? Well, I know how I feel and I don’t take any tablets, which leaves exercise as one of the best cancer medication that any GP can prescribe. Oh, and that aerobic fitness thing? I’m 53 and I run the 3.8km Tan Track in Melbourne in under 18 minutes.

I am now fitter and more confident than I was prior to cancer. My resilience to adversity has never been stronger and I have re-engaged with my family & friends. I have the energy to take on more than I have ever done before. The only lingering question is why it needed three years of a cancer journey to realise how blessed I am and how fake my previous steel was.

I will always be indebted to Ex-Med’s founder and primary researcher, Associate Professor Prue Cormie. My exercise physiologist, Phoebe Jones, kept me on track the whole journey. These lifestyle outcomes are not achieved without help.

Source Insight