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Exercise and cancer: Neil’s experience

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Nikki Brady


“Taking part in Active Together created in me a new philosophical attitude. The exercise not only made me feel fit, but also made me feel like I was in control of my own destiny.”

Active Together patient Neil smiling at the camera while in exercise studio

Neil Garner, 69, was the only person on his surgeon’s waiting list to receive an operation on the day of the Queen’s funeral in September 2022.

Just three months earlier, he’d been told he would need to lose weight before he could safely have his cancer removed.

He was referred to a programme funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research, which provided him with specialist fitness, nutrition and wellbeing support.

In the space of eight weeks, Neil managed to lose two stone and significantly improve his fitness.

And the surgeon was so impressed with how he had prepared himself that he ensured Neil’s surgery went ahead as planned, despite reduced staffing levels due to the unscheduled Bank Holiday.

My consultant was very complimentary on the effort I’d put in to lose that amount of weight. If it wasn’t for Yorkshire Cancer Research, the programme might not exist, and so the charity has helped me tremendously to have what I consider to be a positive outcome.

Neil, from Fulwood in Sheffield, was diagnosed with cancer in May last year after completing his bowel screening kit. The test is designed to find cancer at an early stage before any symptoms are noticed.

“At a certain age everybody becomes aware of the possibility of cancer,” Neil says. “My family’s attitude is that if you’ve got the opportunity to get tested for something then you take it, which is what I did.

“I felt upset when I was told I had cancer, but I also felt that I needed to be strong for my family. It was my four-year-old grandson Henry, and my ‘about to be born’ grandson Jacob, who motivated me to be positive and to do all I could to give myself the best possible chance. I wanted to be there a bit longer to see them grow up.”

With a career in the medical device industry, Neil was already aware of the relationship between exercise and clinical procedures. He knew that being able to have laparoscopic, or ‘keyhole’, surgery to remove the cancer would mean a safer procedure with fewer complications, a shorter stay in hospital and a quicker recovery.

Laparoscopic surgery means an operation can be carried out by making a few small openings in the stomach area and then using special instruments and a thin tube with a light and camera on the end to remove the tumour. However, it’s important that patients are physically fit and a healthy weight before they undergo the procedure.

“The benefits of laparoscopic surgery felt very positive to me,” Neil says. “When my surgeon asked me about my weight, it just confirmed to me what I’d need to do.”

Active Together patients taking part in group exercise class

Neil was referred to the exercise programme, and the next day he received a phone call from one of the team’s physiotherapists. The day after that, he visited Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre for a fitness assessment.

“Fortunately, my fitness was okay, but I was overweight,” Neil explains. “So they created a personalised training programme for me to lose weight and to bring my fitness stamina up to an even better level than it was.

"Coming to the centre and talking to people who really understood what I needed to achieve provided me with the motivation I needed to get into a rhythm."

The visits with my personal trainer became the highlight of my week. The programme pushed me to achieve something and helped with my philosophy on how I was personally dealing with cancer.

“I knew I had a goal to achieve, and that helped me tremendously. I realised I was helping myself to do something that could beat the cancer. When I found out that my operation would go ahead, it really did put me in a happy mood.”

Neil continued to keep as active as possible during the chemotherapy treatment that followed his surgery. He found that going for walks when able helped relieve some of the side effects like brain fog and low mood.

Now, Neil has returned to the exercise programme to rebuild his strength and fitness.

He added: “I believe that exercise should be available for all cancer patients. At the same time, I think the NHS, including GPs and clinicians, should be promoting exercise to people with cancer, and that the government should help with funding. Having been through the Active Together programme, I think everyone should have the opportunity to benefit from this kind of support.”

The Active Together service is a pioneering service designed to help people with cancer prepare for and recover from treatment. This new approach to cancer treatment sees patients offered a combination of physical activity, nutrition and psychological wellbeing support before, during and after their treatment.

It is designed by Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research and delivered in partnership with Sheffield Teaching Hospitals.

Read more about the exercise programme