Sports health in the management of cancer therapy

Tan sharing her experience of being diagnosed with Leukaemia

A group of UTAR students, who are currently enrolled in MPU34152, Leadership and Teambuilding subject, conducted a virtual interview with Emily Tan, a cancer survivor, on 17 February 2021. The aim of the interview was to understand how Sports Health helps in the management of cancer therapy.    

“Sports, in general, are helpful as they bring positive energy, discipline and other commendable qualities in your life regardless of what therapy you are undergoing,” Tan said and added, “Take sports as a part of ‘genre’ when looking at the overall health.” “It would be great to take up a sport while undergoing cancer treatment. This is because you need a lot of energy for cancer treatment. Sports can bring a positive influence on your life. It challenges your resilience and will to get better upon failing,” Tan advised.

“There are no specific sports recommended for cancer patients; it is solely based on individuals. You need to understand what brings you joy. You won’t know what type of sports you like until you give it a try. There are online classes as well as fitness centres everywhere around Klang Valley; feel free to try. You may not enjoy it by merely trying it once, so you have to give it a chance. It’s like going out on a date with someone! You must allow the sports or activity to work its way to you and you must work your way to it,” she enthused.

Tan added, “In sports, you would have expectations on winning or performing at a certain level. If that doesn’t happen, how are you going to deal with that defeat? Would it make you feel disappointed? What would you feel when you can’t meet your own standard? Would you feel like a loser? All these experiences would change as you go through the journey, just like cancer. You need to have full control of the situation. You need to start understanding different things, whatever that helps you instil faith again. Furthermore, you can also train your mind to manage your emotions.”

“Sports like tennis, badminton, soccer and basketball are hard to play when you are undergoing cancer treatment. The last thing you would want to do is put yourself out there with a whole group of people. When you exert your body to a certain extent, your immune system would take a hit. Therefore, you need to strategise,” she said and added, “Upon undergoing chemotherapy, your platelets and white blood cell counts will drop. And when that happens, your body will respond with a fever and it will start weakening. As a result, the medical team will have to give you more medication to control the symptoms. You may even experience some side effects after taking the medications. When you deal with this, you must learn to take a step back and that itself imposes a challenge.”

Tan did not attend any group sessions when she was undergoing chemo treatment because she was aware that being around people would cause discomfort not only to her but also to others. In order to challenge herself mentally and physically, she brought tools, toys and even an exercise band to the hospital to keep herself active by doing simple workouts. “When you know you have interest in something, just do it,” she said. It helped to divert her negative thoughts and it also made her active.

“You are more important than you think you are. Therefore, look for a purpose in life, one that resonates with you. For those who are dealing with cancer, get ready to meet and love all the different versions of you. Some days you will feel emotional, some days you are going to feel negative; some days you are going to be motivated and some days you are going to be hopeful. You have to learn and embrace all these different sides of yourself. Everyone is unique in terms of our needs. Recognise what you need individually and what is best for you. It is okay to get inspiration from other people because sometimes inspiration really helps. It helps to boost your mood and take the first step,” she advised.

Tan explained, “There are four different types of treatment for leukaemia. For the doctors to consolidate your body, they would usually do induction chemo. So, the first chemotherapy would usually last for seven days along with a twenty-four-hour drip. The drip flow is usually slow due to its toxicity. So, you need to recover before you do the next treatment. As for me, I was qualified for the next treatment because of my age, and also because my body was able to handle it. I qualified for a bone marrow transplant as well. It was not easy to find a match. If you think you can save a life, then do it! It is your decision; I encourage you to be a donor.”

Speaking about the side effects of medication, she said, “Any medication you take has side effects. The side effect I experienced was gut pain. So, I had to be on morphine for a period of time. After going through the transplant, walking became difficult for me. At times, my body would tremble when I try to lay on the floor. It was truly challenging,” she said and encouraged, “You need to recognise the current challenge on hand and remember that this is temporary. What are you going to make out of that temporary time?” 

According to Tan, movement was very important for her because it helped to enhance her mood. For her, it is crucial and non-negotiable. “When you are bedridden for a long time, your digestive system would not work well; it becomes less effective. The digestive system needs your body to move for it to function well. It needs the blood to flow. If you are laying, sitting or being inactive for the whole day, it would affect your digestive system as well as your mental health. By movement, I meant just moving around, not workout,” Tan said. She would usually move around every two hours.

“If you are personally dealing with this right now or if you know someone who is dealing with cancer, it is not the same for everybody, especially when it comes to movements, sports or any physical activity that has not been a large part of their lives. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that it is impossible. You got to find ways to play with them. For example, you can blow a balloon and play with the person by using your head, hand or knee. These are the types of task-based activities that trick you into moving without you preparing yourself to move,” she said.

When Tan found out that she was diagnosed with cancer, she did not know what to feel. Furthermore, she did not know what Leukaemia was. When she got to know that she was diagnosed with Leukaemia, she googled and found out that it was a type of blood cancer. Initially, she had a mixed feeling and she was a little ignorant because she did not know what it was. But later, she began wondering what was going to happen to her. The typical feeling of sadness and anger that people might feel upon receiving news regarding cancer, did not happen until later.

Fortunately for Tan, she was a solution-based person; if something were to go wrong, she would immediately seek a solution. Tan did not allow her emotions to take over despite the overwhelming situation. Upon hearing the news, she was not angry nor was she sad; Tan simply wanted to sort it out. She realised that there are things that she cannot control. Rather than wasting time and energy, she decided to do chemotherapy.

“Before you rush into something, look at the root, look at the cause. Understand how and what you can do to help the situation. We are all different in terms of what drives us. We are all different in how we respond to things. Even our happiness is determined by different things. Do what you need to do, that works for you at this moment. Be adaptable; that is a crucial skill if you want to get through cancer, pandemic, etc. We are currently dealing with a lot of uncertainty. Some of us are going to be more sensitive to it while some may learn to be more adaptable. Pick your choice,” she advised.

Tan owns a podcast where she talks about how she finds power from struggles. She also shares stories about the influencing life of practitioners and professionals as well as life-changing stories about people.

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