Exercise in My Life or My Life in Exercise: BC & AD

Written By ELLICSR

Editor's note: On June 9, ELLICSR celebrated National Cancer Survivors Day. The celebration included a panel discussion on cancer survivorship and exercise. Barbara Jenkins, cancer survivor and volunteer at ELLICSR, shared how exercise has supported her. Here is her full speech.

I plan to show how exercise in its myriad of forms has molded, shaped, defined and supported me over the many decades.

I was born just after the end of the war, 51 BC to be exact, in a rainy cotton mill town called Rochdale, just north of Manchester. Think “Coronation Street” for attitude and accents. Industrial post-war Britain was a tough environment in which to grow up. Food rationing was in force, housing and working conditions were poor, and most people like me lived without a car, fridge, phone or TV. Resilience and toughness was the key to survival at the time.

The upshot of these “deprivations” was that walking became an essential part of everyday life to get to the shops, school, workplace, doctor, library, not to mention the very important pub. In Lancashire, walking had another name: “Shank’s Pony”, defined as “using one’s legs as a form of transport”. Buses did exist, but they were to be avoided because of the cigarette fog. For me as a child, though, walking wasn’t fast enough. Always short of time, I grew up running everywhere, especially to school, often to avoid the bullies from the local school who despised and tormented school girls in uniform. I learned speed and agility early on as a form of escape.

The summers were blissful, spent running free with my friends in the nearby woods and parks, reenacting the adventures that I had absorbed and stored up during the long winter nights of reading and dreaming.



When I was 11, my reward for passing a school selection exam was to take riding lessons which entailed a 5km walk each way. Being horse crazy, it was a small price to pay!

By my mid-teens, I had swapped horses for dancing. The early 60s had great music and lots of dances to go to. I had a mojo ticking away when it came to movement.

However, there is another aspect of my childhood that was positively influenced by exercise, and that was the psycho-social side. Exercise kept me buoyant and bouncy. As an only child, I carried a lot of weight in terms of responsibility and anxiety. I worried about my mother who worked long hours, from morning to night running her pub. I worried about my father who was a shell-shocked survivor of the trenches. Today it would be called PTSD and treated, but not then. Exercise became my escape, release, outlet and support. I was a testament to the power of endorphins! My mother died of breast cancer when I was 18 and I really did escape, this time to university.

When I came to Canada in early 1970, I sank into hiatus from exercise. There was no need to walk now that I had a car. I disliked my “under exercised” feeling. As soon as I could, I found a local high school track and started running laps, enough to fire up my slumbering mojo and prepare me for running after small children!

The 1980s brought new developments on the exercise scene. Gyms were opening up and the aerobics craze hit the airwaves together with the mandatory spandex and the “No pain, no gain” philosophy. Exercise was suddenly becoming dangerously exciting! By the early 90s I was a regular gym bunny, reveling in aerobics and step classes. I was finally unleashing my inner dancer! I took up weight lifting at this time and was hooked forever! They say that strength training is “the fountain of youth”, and I felt strong, fit and confident, a sentiment soon to be shattered.

In 1997, I had my annus horribilis, like The Queen around that time. In the space of a week in April of that year, I was diagnosed with breast and uterine cancer. End of BC, (yes, you guessed, “Before Cancer”), hello AD. Surgeries in May and June we closely followed by 6 months of chemo and finally 5 weeks of radiation, not forgetting 10 years of hormonal therapy.

My immediate reaction was that my body, which I had worked so hard to make strong, had let me down. Then I realized that I could let exercise work for me as an intervention by embracing it as much as I was able to. As soon as possible after surgeries, I was walking, getting back to slow running by mid-summer. I resumed the classes I enjoyed so much at the Y, though always listening to what my body was telling me. Exercise helped so much during chemo by giving me mental and physical fortitude.

That summer, we got a Golden Retriever puppy and she provided me with so much joy at a time when I needed it. It has been said that dogs are exercise machines with fur! So true. Whatever the weather, 365 days a year, they have to be walked. In September 1997, I returned to teaching, which presented a new set of challenges but I kept my exercise routine going throughout. I truly believe that exercise held me together that year and helped me to survive and thrive. And so it has up to the present, 17 AD. The big difference is that I amped up my exercise program over those AD, “After Diagnosis” years.

In 2004 when I retired from teaching, I became a volunteer in the survivorship program at the Princess Margaret, certified as a Personal Trainer, and took up long distance running. Suddenly I had the time and the energy needed to train. I ran my first half marathon in an Ottawa heat wave in 2006, so unbelievably tough that, at the 17 km point, I didn’t think I’d cross the finish line. It took all my resilience and determination to do so. However, it didn’t deter me. I just completed my 12th half marathon a month ago here Toronto. I am so proud of my golden dozen and I plan to run a few more. I hope I can continue running for as long as I am able. Running is my time to mediate and to plan (this talk for instance) as well as giving me the intensity of workout I need.

There are interesting similarities between running long distance and the cancer journey. Both require courage, stamina and endurance, both have moments when once feels on has had enough (like a few of my long runs this cold winter). I liken both chemo and running to climbing a mountain. When one reaches the halfway point, it’s all downhill from there! I say my running mantra when the going gets tough.

Exercise is about a balance and I find that running and yoga complement and support each other perfectly. Running, the yang, is fast and aggressive, whilst yoga, the yin, is slow and passive. Yoga for injury prevention and relaxation are big parts of my flexibility routine.

My Life in Exercise would not be complete without mentioning Healthy-Steps which I do teach here with Stephanie. I started the program in 2009 when ELLICSR was still a construction site. Since then, at least 400 participants passed through the program. I would like to take this opportunity firstly to thank Aleks, Myann and the Survivorship Committee for allowing me to persuade them to take a chance on me. I’d like to thank all the Healthy Steppers who have enjoyed sharing my love of music and dance and who have helped to make Healthy Steps such a vibrant program. They give so much back to me in all kinds of ways.

To finish, I truly believe that the love of exercise has transformed my life over the decades. It has been a worthy friend and companion. I like to think of exercise as an umbrella with five spokes for the fitness components of warm up, cardio, resistance training, and flexibility/balance and cool down, all sheltering me from the elements!

I will finish with a paraphrased quote from Lewis Carroll:

“The time has come the walrus said, to think of a special thing,
Of exercise, exercise and then some more,
And the benefits it can bring”
So … define it, refine it, and make it yours!

Thank you.