How Exercise Helped One Breast Cancer Survivor Get Her Life (and Body) Back on Track

Just before she turned 40, Westchester mom, Devina O’Reilly, was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her first routine mammogram they found something that looked suspicious in her right breast. “I figured it would be nothing because that’s the way I think. Unfortunately, it was cancer. It had to be removed pronto,” says O’Reilly who is from the U.K., but lives in Rye with her husband and two daughters. Within a few weeks, only a week before her 40th birthday, she had a mastectomy and her life turned upside down.

What followed was a lengthy period of chemotherapy, constant hospital visits, and radiotherapy. As well as having to come to terms with the changes to her body, she had to deal with unpleasant side effects including losing her hair and fatigue. Before her diagnosis, she had been a regular at spin classes and loved Zumba. “Post-surgery and post-treatment, things were very different. I couldn’t move my right arm and I was tired all the time. I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, I was anxious and it was physically overwhelming,” explains O’Reilly.

The role of exercise

Although cancer patients were once encouraged to rest and avoid strenuous exercise, things are changing. According to Jun J. Mao, M.D., MSCE and Chief of Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, “Being physically active can help maintain quality of life, prevent functional decline, and accelerate recovery once treatment is completed.” Recent studies have also shown exercise can help reduce fatigue and stress, improve memory, and lower the chance of recurrence, but actually doing it can be hard.

O’Reilly’s physical therapists were huge advocates of exercise during treatment and afterward, as long as it was done in the right way. Too tired to hit the gym, she started walking. Instead of driving to the city for medical appointments, she caught the train to Grand Central and walked. “It got me out of the house and meant I could do a bit of physical exercise without having to go to the gym,” she says.

Even during chemotherapy, when she was in pain because her joints were aching and was struggling doing basic things around the house, she would walk to Rye Beach, where she would sometimes sit on the bench and cry. “I’m usually really optimistic and knew I’d be fine, but it was a change and I found it hard. Walking helped me get through it,” says O’Reilly.

After 11 long months, her treatment finished and she was in remission. O’Reilly was desperate to get fitter and stronger mentally and physically. Her doctors advised her to eat well and exercise. “That became my new prescription,” she says.

Moving more

She spent New Year’s with her family and friends at a ski resort in Vermont. “My girls love skiing, my husband loves it and we went as a big group. I skied, not much, but I did,” she says. This gave her a boost and she decided to contact Soul Ryeders, a charitable organization in Rye dedicated to empowering people affected by cancer through various programs. At one point when she was feeling really low, she started doing their Yoga 4Cancer, a special class for cancer patients and survivors. “The instructor was like an angel and just made you feel good. Even if I couldn’t do the positions, I just lay there, panting,” she recalls.

O’Reilly signed up for Live Strong, a free 12-week exercise program designed for survivors at the Rye YMCA. “It was a turning point because it actually required going into a gym and doing classes,” she remembers. “At first I struggled because I was so out of shape or I’d worry I’d hurt myself, but it made me feel independent and gave me control over my body again, and that made me feel good.”

She incrreased her exercise, got a personal trainer, joined Life Time Athletic, a health club in White Plains, and signed up for events including the Avon Walk, a 39-mile walk that raises money for breast cancer awareness. She did the Westchester Triathlon Super Sprint and then the actual triathlon on a Soul Ryeder’s Soul Fit relay team. “I did the cycling leg, but didn’t realize 26 miles was so far. I’d never even ridden a bike on the street,” she says. “I didn’t realize I could do it and it was so empowering when I did.”

O’Reilly’s incredible sense of optimism is evident. “I want to enjoy doing stuff with my kids. I hated feeling like the feeble one, I was so fragile for so long, but I’m not dead, I’m alive and I want to do everything I can,” she says.

Janine Clements is a Westchester-based freelance writer.

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