Body & Fitness

The classes helping Kiwis learn to recover from cancer

They are about more than just exercise for these Christchurch women.

Christchurch woman Isobel Stout has hardly taken a breather in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes.

Employed by the council as an environmental health officer, she was among those working at the forefront of the recovery. The ensuing four years were, she says, “all hands to the pump”.

And then came another devastating blow. Isobel was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, meaning it had spread into her lymph nodes.

“It certainly wasn’t what I needed on top of all the other stress and strain, that’s for sure,” she sighs.

Six months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and five weeks of radiation followed. The 50-year-old, who’d always been fit and active – she’d competed in the 160km Round Taupo Bike Race and in Masters swimming – was, as she puts it “exhausted, absolutely shattered”. Her self-esteem took a battering.

But then, she reached a turning point.

A sore back led to an appointment with St George’s Cancer Care Centre’s oncology physiotherapist Julee Burns, who, serendipitously, was in the process of putting together a new exercise programme for recovering cancer patients.

Isobel signed up and has since completed two 10-week courses. All things considered, the programme turned out to be just the tonic she needed.

“Before the classes, I didn’t know myself any more,” she tells. “You become so risk averse and over-cautious. I was afraid to do physical activity – I wasn’t sure what I should do or how much I could do.”

The programme encompasses Pilates, yoga and cardio, with exercises adapted to the needs of each class. Classes are kept small – the average is eight people – to help patients grow in confidence.

Says Julee, “The biggest barrier for many women is that loss of confidence. Their bodies have changed – they might have lost a breast and the idea of going swimming, being seen in public, becomes a huge thing.

“They live with the fear of recurrence, so every little ache, every little thing that we would normally associate with tight muscles after exercise, they’re thinking the cancer is back. My job is to reassure them. I spend a good 10 minutes after most classes answering questions about anything and everything.”

While Isobel is still recovering – she has lymphoedema and restricted movement due to scarring – she says Julee’s classes have been hugely beneficial, physically and psychologically. Being around women who understood exactly what she was going through was a huge confidence booster.

“I was distraught, heartbroken when my hair all fell out,” she tells. “I knew it was going to happen but when it finally does, nothing can prepare you for that.

“Others in the class were going through the same thing. Everyone has their own story, but no-one has to tell it, we all knew. There was this mutual understanding and everyone supports each other no matter where you are in your journey.”

Fellow breast cancer patient Sheila Hailstone agrees. Like Isobel, she contacted St George’s when her lymphoedema became unbearable, urged on by a sister-in-law who is a nurse.

Regular mammograms hadn’t picked up her cancer; it was diagnosed only after a breast self-examination and numerous visits to her GP. At the time, she and her husband were battling their insurance company over damage to their home during the quakes.

“That definitely took a toll, it just wears you down,” she tells. “I got diagnosed on Valentine’s Day and had to decide what to do. Even the cancer nurse had tears in her eyes.”

Sheila had a mastectomy and her lymph nodes removed. Months of radiotherapy and chemo were followed by Herceptin treatment, and the 60-year-old quit her job as CEO of a charitable trust that works with vulnerable households.

Sheila’s hair also fell out, and she lost her nails, eyebrows and eyelashes as well.

Isobel with Julee (right), the physio behind the exercise classes.

“I went a bit crazy and bought about 10 wigs. I treated it as dress-up time and wore a different one each day.

“The classes have been brilliant. I have a physio who understands my issues and can personalise my exercise programme. Plus, there’s a whole group of women who have all been through something similar and that’s really encouraging.

“I’ve made good friends. I took one, who’s still going through Herceptin treatment, to an appointment recently and we do swim jogging together. If I can support others, that’s a bonus.”

Julee says there is compelling evidence that physical exercise cannot only reduce the side effects of a patient’s treatment but improve their quality of life and prognosis as well. Studies overseas of women suffering from breast cancer show a 50-53 per cent increased chance of survival if they do regular moderate intensity exercise.

Sheila in one of the classes, which incorporate a mixture of Pilates, yoga and cardio.

“So you can’t deny it’s something that should be included as part of their treatment and care.” Isobel is living proof. This year, she biked up Coronet Peak and competed in the 100km Mt Cook cycle classic and the South Island Masters Games.

“I’m getter fitter and stronger every day. I’m back riding my bike, climbing hills, gardening,” she tells. “There is a sense of ‘Yay, I can do these things.’ It’s about taking part, having fun and enjoying it – not winning. It’s about getting out there, having a fabulous time and being grateful that I can.”

Get moving

Classes are free for anyone who has had a cancer diagnosis. Visit or

Words: Julie Jacobson

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