“IF exercise was a pill we’d be prescribing it to everyone.”
So says Jennifer McCarthy, who has the unique perspective of someone who has trained and worked in the settings of both medicine and fitness.
She’s an Ambassador for 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer, a community-based initiative, created to encourage those living with and beyond cancer, their families and friends and those working in cancer services to walk, jog, run, cheer or volunteer at a local 5k Your Way park run event.
5K Your Way Ballincollig launched last May at the town’s Regional Park, in collaboration with Ballincollig park run, taking place on the last Saturday of every month.
Jennifer is a passionate advocate for the role of physical activity in the prevention and management of chronic disease. She has spent many years working closely with cancer patients in her role as a Senior Radiation Therapist at CUH but, to the surprise of many, she walked away from the job last March in order to further expand her knowledge of exercise as a healing tool and to explore how she could bring that into the lives of others.
“There’s all this evidence coming to light about the benefits of physical activity, but I didn’t see physical activity coming into the treatment plan for patients,” she said.
The 28-year-old, originally of Carrigtwohill, trained in Trinity College, before working for two years in St Vincent’s private hospital. This was followed by two years as a radiation therapist in the Middle East before returning to Dublin for another year, finally making her way back to Cork to work at CUH.
It was during her time abroad that the seeds were sown for her change of career when the manager of the gym she attended encouraged her to pursue a Crossfit coaching certificate.
“That’s when I considered that I could be a facilitator for physical activity. My mind was made up by the time I was on the flight home.”
Back in Dublin, she got her qualification in personal training and group fitness but continued to work in hospital settings. Although she loved her job, she constantly struggled with the fact that the benefits of exercise were barely getting a mention. She could also see how patients could become socially isolated through the course of their illness and treatment, something for which she feels exercise is a remedy.
“Patients getting radiotherapy are in every day for four to six weeks and we build a rapport with them. For six weeks we are a constant point of contact and then at the end of six weeks they are left with nothing. Family and friends think they’re finished their treatment; they’re grand. But that’s when they need support the most. They’re no longer seeing the radiation therapist, the nurse specialist or even the receptionist asking how was their bus journey.
“They’ve got a fear of recurrence and relapse and they’re dealing with the treatment’s side- effects. Even though we give them our phone number, they’ve seen how busy we are, so the last thing they want to do when they get back to their own house is say, ‘I’ll ring Jenn’.”
That’s why the group aspect of the 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer initiative is a great step towards reducing social isolation, with every participant having a similar back story and mutual understanding.
“People know coming to a group like this that people do understand”, she says. “It’s a supportive environment and it’s an active environment.”
Back to the hospital setting though, and Jenn feels there should be more joined up thinking on the message given to patients about the benefits of physical activity.
“I’m just one point of contact encouraging Mary or Tom to go out to the park or walk the dog, but they’re not being told that by consultants. It’s like going to the GP and being told one thing but being told something else by the GP’s nurse.”
However, she understands how and why this is happening and knows that medicine must be the first part of any conversation.
“Exercise is an adjunct to treatment; it’s not to replace it. It’s to help the patient physically and socially. You’re dealing with a threatening illness and the consultant has 20-minute slots. It might be difficult for the conversation to get to exercise in that time. But if there were a bunch of leaflets on the consultant’s desk it would be a start. And one day it should get to the point of them saying, ‘Here’s your drugs, here’s your surgery date and here’s the contact for the exercise specialist’. It’s already happening in Australia. There are evidence-based guidelines they are following. Even the NHS is starting to come through with it now.”
There is some hope here that things are gradually changing too, with the HSE’s introduction of the Making Every Contact Count programme for all healthcare professionals. This highlights the importance of providing snippets of information to patients, in order to support and encourage them to make healthy lifestyle choices for disease prevention and in the self-management of existing diseases.
Jennifer is quite clear when listing the benefits of physical exercise for people living with cancer.
“It reduces cancer-related fatigue, helps to preserve cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, and improves psychological wellbeing. It may also reduce treatment side effects, reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and prolong survival.”
She also encourages people to initially just make small changes for the better.
“I’m always pushing that people can break it up into three ten-minute blocks a day. That adds up to 30 minutes a day.”
Jennifer is now working as a personal trainer at ATP Fitness in Douglas and she has started a Masters in Clinical Exercise and Physiology through distance learning at NUI Galway. She sees a parallel between her new work and that of her former duties as a radiotherapist.
“People say, ‘It must be a massive change’ but if you break it down it’s not. Patients came in trusting me and felt vulnerable in my presence and it’s not that different in ATP where people are vulnerable in trusting me to help them fulfil their goals. It translates really well. It’s not black and white at all. The reason I get up in the morning is the exact same and I’m excited about where it might bring me.”
However, she hasn’t ruled out a return to the medical field in the future.
“I probably will go back to oncology, maybe with an emphasis on survivorship — with of course exercise in mind!”
For now though, she is keen to spread the word of 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer. “I’m going to be there if one, ten… or no-one turns up,” she says, determinedly. “Exercise has benefited me, so imagine what it could do for someone who is sick.
“We need to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling. We have the potential to create a very strong community with this.”
Participation is free (just bring enough money for a sociable cup of coffee afterwards!). Register with 5k Your Way and park run via: 5kyourway.org/register, before meeting at 9:15am on the last Saturday of every month at Regional Park, Ballincollig, at the Innishmore Lawn side, near the yellow barrier.
For more information visit www.facebook.com/ballincollig5kyourway