Why I trained to be a Cancer Rehab Instructor

Day 1 of a 6 day course held on Zoom.  We were asked what words, feelings or emotions came to mind when we heard the word cancer.  The responses were what you might expect; fear, life changing, terrified; predominantly negative nouns or adjectives.  What followed were 6 days of very comprehensive, accessible and relevant training to equip us with everything we need as fitness or health care professionals to train with those who have received a cancer diagnosis and are at any given point in their treatment journey. 

Day 6 dawned and we were once again asked what words, feelings or emotions came to mind when we heard the word cancer.  The responses couldn’t have been more different.  Exercise.  Move.  Hope.  The responses were a huge contrast to Day 1; encouraging, uplifting and positive.  Exercise does and can help a person living with or beyond cancer.  It isn’t a secret!  Movement matters. This of course, was like preaching to the converted but it has given me the tools to help those who are not perhaps quite as sold on the concept.

So, a little bit about me.  I am 49 and have spent the last 6 years learning what I can do physically and living out of my comfort zone as much as I can bear.  It all started with a half Ironman in 2017 which I signed up to before I could really swim and since then, I’ve completed two 70.3s, ran some marathons, retrained as a Personal Trainer, set up a small Running coaching business, became a certified Ironman coach. There are some bumps in the road especially when I hit peri menopause and I’m still working through these but they didn’t stop me training for and finishing my first Ironman this summer.

In 2020 5k Your Way Shrewsbury first formed as part of an inspiring nationwide initiative to encourage those who are living with or beyond a cancer diagnosis to join others in walking or jogging their local parkrun on the last Saturday of each month.  For me, 3 years down the line, it is now so much more. 

On the last Saturday of each month, myself and the other Shrewsbury ambassadors migrate towards our meeting point and to start with, back when we were all emerging a little shell shocked from a pandemic, it was nice; it’s always been nice.  It was polite and friendly and positive.  Very upbeat and positive.  The numbers varied greatly but we did our best and we enjoyed it.  But now, it feels very different.  It feels familiar and valued.  Connections and friendships have been made between ambassador and ambassador, and between ambassador and those that have come to join our group. And perhaps, most importantly, connections have been made between people that were complete strangers if it wasn’t for 5k Your Way and their reason why they have chosen to come along.  It is unnervingly poignant that going through the difficult and distressing experience of a cancer diagnosis can result in profound friendships with a life affirming warmth. 

I felt not only privileged to be part of a team of lovely human beings, but also in deep admiration and awe of these men and women who turned up each month and joined us; these people I can call friends.  But I didn’t feel I was offering enough. 

You see, I am one of the lucky ones.  I haven’t had cancer.  But it’s there though; the impact of it embedded in my life just like most people.  I lost my dad to cancer in 2014.  It was sudden in the end and as a 39 year old daddy’s girl, it has been the hardest thing I have lived through so far in my life.  Last year one of my best friends was diagnosed.  I did my best to support this amazing family; 4 of my favourite people in the world but I never felt I could make a real difference.  Fortunately, my friend is now all clear and moving on with his life.

Metastases.  Sarcoma.  Lymphodema.  Stage IV.  There are so many words and terms you hear that unless you have been closely affected by cancer or work in cancer services, you may not want to admit it, but your understanding of these terms may not be as accurate as you would like. And that’s fine. If you know you know. 

But I wanted to know.   I didn’t want to be ignorant or to just utter meaningless platitudes to these wonderful people who were joining us at parkrun.  I wanted to be able to add something useful, constructive, positive.  I wanted a better understanding of their journey.

So I enrolled on the CanRehab Level 4 Cancer and Exercise Rehabilitation Course.  I should just add here,  I am a qualified Personal Trainer but I specialise in running coaching so I did meet the entry criteria for the course, but my knowledge was weak to say the least. 

The course was in three parts.  The educating, the coaching and the actual training was fast paced, detailed and very comprehensive.  It was delivered by presenters who really knew their stuff; doctors, physios and other medical professionals who were up to date on the latest research and evidence and also worked alongside those with cancer.  The rapid pace of the course was at times overwhelming but the way the course was written meant content was revisited, perhaps from a different perspective and usually the confusing became clear.  If it didn’t, the whole team encouraged questions and wanted to help. 

Then there was the Assessment Day.  A day of exams and a viva where you were quizzed on case studies.  Intense.  Challenging.  Not an easy day.  But this only added to the weight and the importance of the course.  A person with a cancer diagnosis, undergoing specific treatment with very individual side effects deserves and must be trained by someone who recognises all that this entails.

And finally, a case study.  A chance to show how you would write a programme for a real person with real goals.  And of course this real person is living with cancer and so all aspects of their cancer, treatment and side effects must be taken into account.  I found a real person who was happy for me to sit and ask her lots of questions; simple questions that would have undoubtedly highlighted my lack of experience and knowledge but once again, if you know, you know.  I didn’t know.  But I do now.  I also got to know a completely wonderful person with goals that would be massive for a person without cancer.  And yet she is smashing them with Stage IV breast cancer.  Humbling?  To say the least. Inspiring? Unequivocally yes.  

I passed the course and qualified as a Cancer Rehab Instructor in March of this year but aside from 5k Your Way and attending one or two local cancer group talks and open days, I have yet to make the most of my newfound knowledge and qualification.   I still love coaching my runners and triathletes, but performance coaching is a luxury; it comes after the basics essentials in life.  For a person living with a cancer diagnosis, using exercise and movement to improve their quality of life, to manage side effects and to help them feel they are living are more ‘normal’ life could be regarded as an essential part of their treatment and should form part of the basics in their life. And it is from that standpoint that I will launch my Can Rehab Instructor branch of my business so watch this space!



Comments 2

  1. Steph Shirra
    30 September, 2023

    An inspiring read. Thank goodness there are people like you giving support to others who need rehab after and with Cancer. It’s true we are all afraid of that word ‘Cancer’ but, you give hope and an incredible sense of purpose on a difficult journey. Keep doing what you do. X

  2. swadmin
    11 October, 2023

    Thank you for taking the time to comment Steph! I’m excited to be going in a slightly different direction with the Can Rehab work. Still so much to learn though! x

Comments are closed.