The Irish Medical Times - Cycling saved me from myself


My husband completes triathlons. On one of his first ventures into this world of lycra we took a cab in London to the start line. After forcing his bike into the back the cab driver astutely concluded, ‘You doin’ a race?’. I informed the cabbie that my husband was in fact descended from Greek gods and was about to achieve the unachievable - not only swim in hydra-infested waters, but climb on to his trusty metal steed and outrace the minotaurs, only to finally sprint to the finish line announcing the defeat of the Persians to the anxious Athenians - or words to that effect. He responded ‘Oh yeah? I do triathlons too, except mine are harder’. In my experience London cab drivers are usually experts on the economy, where the NHS is going wrong, ‘people today’, and anything you have experienced they have also experienced in a much better/far worse fashion.

While sitting in the cab, handlebars in one eye, pedal in the other, surrounded by competitive amateur athletes, I was reminded that being active at an intense level is not the preserve of any profession, class, or gender (women can wear lycra too - ask Jane Fonda). But as an active person and a patient living with the effects of serious illnesses, could I become a Greek god?

The answer is yes! 

My fitness was holding its own, I entered a few running and cycling events here and there, sometimes to raise money for charities that supported the cancers I’d had. But when I moved to America and my husband picked up a serious cycling addiction, I thought what am I waiting for? I had gotten into a running pattern and finished out the half marathons I’d trained for - then I took to my bike. 

I found my pegasus. 

After training on the wide open roads and hills of Northern California, one hot summer’s day I cycled 100 miles around Lake Tahoe - raising a substantial amount of money for the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society in the process. I was joined by my husband and one of my best friends. 

Having survived multiple cancers, crossing the finish line stirred up a roil of emotions. My husband once wisely advised me not to compete with anyone but myself (it may have been psychological warfare as I think we were playing a serious game of thumb wars at the time). This advice has served me well, I am not trying to beat anyone’s time or pit myself against non-patients, I’m just trying to keep one step ahead of conceding to illness. Completing the 100 miles was my kick in the teeth to cancer.   

We relocated back to Ireland and a few months later I went into sudden heart failure - but I have built myself back up through exercise and I continue to cycle. I recently completed a 100km night cycle in London with a great friend who chatted with me as the city moved around us. It was a women only cycle for women’s cancers, cycling with 3,000 women touched by cancer was a powerful community experience. At one point in the dead of night, in the middle of London, a drunk man staggered out of a pub and proceeded to run after my friend. I was sure he was going to rugby tackle her off her bike in some form of pub rage at female cyclists. My friend thinks more positively and put her hand out to high five him. ‘Nooo’ I thought as he lunged at her, only to thrust a 20 pound note into her hand and say in a drunken roarl ‘Well done ladies!’. 

Not every patient, especially a heart failure patient, has the capacity for certain exercises. I don’t want anyone to read this and enter an ultramarathon. I am not competitive, I do it for my mental health and to keep hold of the person I once was. Also, I’m slipping down the other side of 40 so my hijink are handcuffed. My story is unique to me, I first had cancer when I left college. I was in the prime of my life, so I’ve been fighting the good fight for a long time. My body is used to a certain degree of push and pull, my genes (God bless my parents) are a big factor in my exercise capability, my response to treatment, my measured approach and let’s not ignore sheer bloody mindedness! 

I listen to my doctor's advice, I have given up running at his suggestion (my heart didn’t like it) and I monitor my vitals as I cycle with my wearables. Perhaps it helps that my cardiologist is a cyclist himself so he can warn me off certain routes and hills. I think he might appreciate that exercise is a mental salve. I also have no problem in stopping mid activity if I felt I was having any adverse health issues. 

For a patient it can be tricky to find an activity, or level of activity, that we can realistically achieve and also feel a sense of achievement. But it is possible, we don’t have to be triathletes or marathon runners, plus with cycling you get to sit down - let’s not overlook that perk. 

To be a Greek god, patient or not, you need to find your ‘active joy’. Maybe it’s not cycling, maybe it's walking in your neighbourhood or Tai Chi in the park or yoga in the pub (is that a thing?). Maybe it’s the friendship that activity can bring. 

Humans have a compulsion to make things happen in their environment. According to a study 67% of male participants left in a room devoid of stimulus except for an electric shock device started giving themselves painful electric shocks for something to do. If you’re nodding your head - maybe it’s time to get on your bike!

Read the original article here - Cycling saved me from myself