Self-Care Journal

How exercise became my form of self-care during cancer treatment

When writer and author Sabrina Rogers-Anderson was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 43, her survival instincts kicked in.

In this article, she writes about how she discovered her form of self-care during this time, navigated the treatment process and came out the other side stronger and healthier than ever.


How I practised self-care during cancer treatment

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

Shortly after my 40th birthday, I had my first mammogram. I’d been told I only needed to start getting screened 10 years before my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer - which would have made me 47 - but I didn’t listen. Something told me I should start earlier and that gut feeling may have saved my life.

While the BreastScreen Australia Program only sends out invitations for free mammograms to women aged 50 to 74, they’re free every two years from the age of 40. You simply need to make an appointment online, so having the quick 10-minute exam for peace of mind seemed like a no-brainer to me. Thankfully, my first mammogram came back clear.

When it was time for me to have my second mammogram two years later, COVID had just shut down the world and the breast screen clinic was closed. I asked my GP whether I should pay for one privately and he said, “Nah, you’re young - a couple of extra weeks or months won’t make a difference.”

With everything that was going on in the world and my personal life (I was also dealing with a marriage breakdown), I completely forgot about it until seven months later. I made an appointment, figuring I would tick it off my to-do list without issues like the first time. But a few days later, I received a call saying I needed further tests.

“You have breast cancer”

The doctor who saw me didn’t even need to wait for the results of the biopsy. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I can tell you right away you have breast cancer,” he said. “But you’re going to be OK.”

I just stared at him blankly. “OK,” I said. “What now?”

Along the continuum of fight, flight or freeze, I’m all fight. When the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, I snap on rubber gloves and grab a sponge.

And it just so happened that my medical team had a long to-do list to keep me busy: surgery to remove the poisoned breast and reconstruct a new one, six months of chemo and 28 straight days of radiation. (Not to mention the two extra surgeries that got thrown in along the way.)

Once I’d digested all the information that was thrown at me, some harsh realities started to set in. The surgery seemed intense. I was going to lose my hair. Chemo was terrifying. And above all, I was worried about how this would affect my three girls who were only seven, four and four.

When they were finally tucked into their beds at night, I would sob into my pillow. One night, I screamed at the top of my lungs and smashed the laundry basket lid against the basket until it was a mangled mess. That was so cathartic!

But every morning, I woke up and put a smile on my face. I’ve always had a positive disposition even in the worst of times. Plus, those three little sets of eyes were watching me, gauging my reaction to figure out their own. I had to fake it till I made it.

Staying active for better outcomes

It was as if my breast surgeon and oncologist had been hand-picked for me. They were no-nonsense people who read my type A personality and empowered me to take control of my treatment journey.

“There’s a huge body of evidence that shows staying active both physically and mentally will reduce your treatment side effects and improve your outcomes,” my oncologist told me. “Keep exercising and working - you’ll fare so much better.”

I went home and did some research - and what I found blew my mind. Exercise is such a powerful tool in the fight against cancer that the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia joined 25 other cancer organisations to call for exercise to be prescribed to all cancer patients.

Research has shown that cancer patients who exercise regularly have fewer and less intense treatment side effects, a reduced risk of recurrence and a lower risk of dying from their cancer.

“If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide and viewed as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment,” wrote Prue Cormie, Principal Research Fellow in Exercise and Cancer at Australian Catholic University. “If we had a pill called exercise it would be demanded by cancer patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist, and subsidised by government.”

As a lifelong exercise nut, I didn’t need to be begged. While I had to take my workout routine down several notches, I still went to the gym and lifted light weights. If I was having a bad day with chemo side effects, a workout always sorted me out.

I often ran 3K around the lake near the hospital right before chemo. I’d waltz into the day infusion unit dripping with sweat and say to my lovely chemo nurses, “Sorry I stink - it’s for my health, you know!”

Well-meaning friends and family who didn’t know the powerful impact exercise could have on cancer treatment outcomes told me not to overdo it and rest. But they didn’t understand that I wasn’t “sick” - it was the chemo drugs that made me feel bad and exercise counteracted that.

Some days, I needed to rest - and I did. I became incredibly in tune with my body and listened to it like never before.

I also kept working as a freelance writer - albeit at a reduced capacity. Doing what I loved most helped dissipate the brain fog and made me feel like a normal person rather than a helpless cancer patient.

Taking care of my mind

There's no doubt exercise has mental health benefits, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to dig deeper in my self-care toolkit to ensure I stayed emotionally resilient.

I felt so fortunate that I’d been meditating regularly with the Calm app for the previous three years. The habit was already in place, so I just needed to double down.

I found a free guided meditation specifically designed for cancer patients. While I’m not convinced meditation can “cure” cancer, I found it extremely calming.

I also continued using Calm daily to soothe my nervous system and ease my anxiety. The goal wasn’t to not feel my emotions, but rather to accept them without resistance and ride the waves.

Writing my thoughts in a journal, taking long baths with soothing epsom salts and calling my close mates to have a rant and a giggle also helped me stay sane.

F**k cancer

I’m one of the lucky ones who beat the C beast and there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful to be here. We all know others who weren’t so lucky.

Now that my hair has completely grown back, I have mastectomy tattoos to cover my scars and I’ve gotten in the best shape of my life at the gym, cancer is starting to feel like a memory rather than a constant presence in my life.

It’s true what they say - what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. When you’re in the depths of a crisis, you can feel like your head is down in a washing machine that’s on spin cycle.

But then, one day, you realise that you’ve made it through and you’ve learnt some incredibly valuable lessons you wouldn’t trade for the world.

Life’s crazy that way. We just have to ride the waves and care for ourselves as best we can along the way.


If you or someone you love is affected by cancer, you can call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20 or visit their website to receive free and confidential information and support. You don’t have to go through this alone.


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