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5 Things I Learned About Training & Diet After Cancer

Petrina is a 36-year-old mother and U.P. client who was almost lost her life to cancer after the birth of her son four years ago.

She is now living with the life-changing consequences of her chemotherapy which left her with serious chronic illness and autoimmune conditions.

Petrina completed an incredible transformation with Ultimate Performance Dubai and continues to work with her U.P. personal trainer to optimise her health and fitness and give herself the best quality of life she can. 

Now, Petrina is sharing her story on World Cancer Day.

She wants to make people more conscious of how much control they have over their health – whether they’re living with cancer, have a loved one dealing with the disease, or for anyone who wants to optimise their health and lower their risk of falling victim to the disease.

Here she talks about her own cancer story and shares the key things she’s learned about overcoming the disease and the importance of training and nutrition.

It all started when I was living and working in Manhattan and when I was eight weeks pregnant I had an abnormal smear test result back.

I went to see an oncologist at the time who said to me “don’t worry – there is nothing to worry about. Come back when you’ve had the baby”.

I was young and “healthy” and had an amazing job. Who gets cancer at my age? Why would I have thought differently? I put it out of my mind.

I had a terrible pregnancy, was constantly sick, vomiting, passing out and in and out of hospital.

But the doctors just put it down to pregnancy. I had a C-section, so they missed the tumour again.

It was only when my son was four months old, and I was in serious pain they did some scans and realised it had been growing inside me whilst pregnant and consequently had spread.

The tumour was too big to operate on so I had to have radiation and chemotherapy straight away.

I had radiation every day and chemotherapy on top, once a week. After I finished that, I had something that is called internal radiation.  

Petrina in London’s Royal Marsden Hospital awaiting treatment.

I couldn’t eat and became very weak. I was in a wheelchair, in bed or lived in hospital.

My husband washed me, washed my hair and brushed my teeth. Every single day he came to to the hospital, looked after our four-month-old baby, ran a business and kept going, all after being told his wife was likely to die.

After the treatment finished we had to wait 12 weeks to see if the treatment had worked. I was told that there was no evidence of disease. It was anticlimactic because I was still so incredibly ill and weak.

But then I was diagnosed with side effects from the treatment. My organs have been damaged from the radiation and chemo which is what I suffer from now.

I have chronic illness that can’t be cured but just trying to get me to a point where they don’t kill me or I can have a quality of life.

For example, my bladder is basically destroyed. It haemorrhaged last year and I had five blood transfusions and three iron transfusions as well as developing a benign tumour.

My surgeon felt at one stage they would have to remove the bladder completely in order to ensure that it wouldn’t kill me from so much blood loss again as well as it no longer functioning. I did something called hyperbaric oxygen therapy which has helped slow the bleeding so I still have the bladder.  

This was an exciting time and I went back to U.P. and training with Chris who as always redid my goals and we got back to it.

Petrina working her delts hard during a training session at Ultimate Performance Dubai.

Unfortunately, I started having serious symptoms of my radiation damage getting worse. Chris again redid all my training to protect my energy levels and where I experienced pain. After being in hospital eight times in December 2018, I was told in January 2019 I would need surgery and I flew back to London where I am now living at The Royal Marsden hospital.

Now the small intestine damage that I was diagnosed with in 2015 has gotten worse. So I can no longer eat food or drink even water. The radiation has created scar tissue which means that peristalsis doesn’t work, as well as thickening of the intestinal walls, meaning food and water gets blocked.

As a consequence, I’ve been going through periods of starving myself because I can’t eat, losing weight, eating and then ending up in hospital again.

If they don’t sort it out through surgery and the bowel perforates, I could die. So that’s why I’m living in hospital now.

I have a PICC line in feeding me nutrition as I can’t eat and am on a drug pain regime as well as having an NG tube because fluid cannot clear from my stomach. We are waiting for my strength to build to get me through surgery.

The surgeon has told me that surgery is our only option but it’s not going to cure me of this radiation damage and I am likely to relapse again – this is life after cancer.

This is what the cancer treatment does. I have to wrap my head and have done that my life as I thought it would be has changed.

I wanted to write about some of the key things I have learned about taking control of your health and fitness over the past few years that might help others whose lives have been touched by cancer in whatever way.

Petrina proudly sporting her ‘Lift UP’ t-shirt during her stay at the Royal Marsden Hospital.

1. ‘You are stronger and more capable than you could ever know’

Ultimate Performance and my trainer, Chris, taught me to believe in myself again. I had no faith in my body and believed myself to be a failure. That after everything that’s happened I could never achieve anything again.

I was struggling at home. As a mum, a wife, a friend. I could no longer work. Cancer stripped my self-identity from me. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

I never wanted to do a ‘transformation’. Chris never pressured me, but he believed in me so much and it was so powerful I thought I may be able to do it – if he thought that I could.

So, I tried. I just did what he asked me to do and he transformed my body but most importantly my mind.

Every rep I could get through, every improvement I made showed me I wasn’t “broken” and I wasn’t a failure.

It showed me that things don’t always have to be perfect to be wonderful. Not every session was a kick-ass session. But each session and getting it done is a building block to taking charge and control of your life.

My body is always now going to be this way – I can’t control that to a certain degree. So I focus on being more structured and controlling with the things I can control like diet, lifestyle changes and the thoughts I have.

This is why U.P. is so much more than just ‘before and after’ images. A transformation runs much, much deeper.

The results of Petrina’s incredible 12-week transformation in 2018.

2. ‘Your mindset can change everything’

Mindset to me is EVERYTHING. Where your mind leads, your body will follow. What you tell yourself about yourself becomes true.

People ask me all the time if I’m “faking” my positivity and my smile. They simply don’t believe that someone with the health complications and the life I have truly is positive.

But I am. It’s not fake. I just have a different perspective. I see my life for all I have, not what I have lost or where I am lacking.

Joy and satisfaction is a frame of reference and within us. Every single time I have been in hospital, I have gone back to U.P. and trained. Every single time.

I understand about resilience – it’s not really resilience. It’s the knowledge that I have something that brings me joy and happiness waiting for me the other side.

I take my steps and walk around the hospital floor when I can, knowing that everything I do has a cumulative impact.

I know I have the whole support of U.P. behind me and my trainer, Chris, in Dubai waiting to help me get stronger when I get back. U.P. is a community. People don’t realise that.

Yes, I got abs. But I’ve also got an insane amount of incredible people behind me and a mindset that if I can get through a training session with Chris shouting in my ear all the time, then I can get through this.

Maybe my life didn’t work out the way I planned it to, but it doesn’t mean this version can’t be better. And I’m making it the best life ever because it’s the one I’ve got.  

Some suffering in life is inevitable. Bad things happen, we get sick, people we love die. But I have seen that more often than not we heap additional suffering onto ourselves. That’s a CHOICE. Don’t choose more suffering! That’s madness. Change your mindset. Change your perspective.

A big part of Petrina’s recovery and management of her chronic illnesses has been staying active and healthy.

3.‘Invest in your fitness and health for while you can’

FItness is NOT health. But it’s a vehicle to optimising your health and quality of life. Without exercise I would never have survived or gotten through this mentally and physically I would not have recovered the way in which I have done.

Exercise is a PRIVILEGE it’s not a chore

You have one body for your whole life. You have a responsibility to yourself and those that care for you to treat yourself properly.

Exercise is hard at first, but I promise it becomes one of the most incredible ‘endorphin high’ experiences that you won’t be able to get enough of. There will be that lightbulb moment and one day you will realise what it’s all about.

Exercise should be prescribed by doctors, I think, in the same way as drugs. It’s a weapon against cancer without a doubt   

Get educated on nutrition too and find out what works for you. There are so many fads and absolute nonsense out there. You must realise that we are all different; what works for me, won’t necessarily work for you.

Enjoy your diet. Find a balance. It’s great being healthy, but food is also social and pleasurable. And life is for living in those moments.

Split squats are a key part of Petrina’s lower body training at Ultimate Performance Dubai

4. ‘You have the power to make your life and your health the best it can be’

Living with chronic health issues is challenging.

You can’t cure ‘chronic’ and when you have chronic issues most people have mental health issues too, because to live under such circumstances is intolerable.

Genuinely, I do not.

I am sometimes sad because I am in pain a lot and separated from my son, but I am PROUD of myself that I found U.P. and listened to my trainer, Chris, and made positive lifestyle changes.

I KNOW I have done everything in my power to minimise certain things and optimise the quality of my life. Not many people can say that and I’m proud that I continue to strive for a better life.

Even at her lowest moments, Petrina takes a daily ‘gratitude walk’, like this around her hospital ward, to celebrate all the things she can despite her on-going health issues.

5. ‘Focus on the things you love most’

Family are everything. My son is my reason for wanting to be strong. For never giving up when it’s easier to want to let it all be over. So, I can fill his childhood with happy memories. My husband and my mother and my extended family are my rocks, and friends are the family we choose. Without people around us we are nothing.

What do I know now that I wish I’d have known at the start?

I wish it hadn’t taken me losing the use of my body entirely to realise how much I loved using it.

I wish it didn’t take me having to use a wheelchair to realise how much I loved & valued the ability to walk.

I wish it hadn’t taken me being totally unable to eat to realise how eating fuels you and what a gift it is to be able to eat well.

I wish I had understood how to live in a body that is pain-free is truly living your best life.

I wish it hadn’t taken true fatigue and exhaustion to understand the difference on the days that I just “couldn’t be bothered.”

I wish I had realised how important independence and the ability to look after yourself is before I was no longer able to.

I wish I hadn’t lost a load of my hair to realise how much confidence I gained from having it.

Petrina and her trainer Chris celebrating her story in Women’s Health.

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