‘I’m 31 and have breast cancer, here’s how exercise is helping’

Lena Weib

Romilly Smith, 31, from Birmingham, was diagnosed with triple positive, grade 2 breast cancer when she was 30, in November 2021. She’s since undergone four rounds of chemotherapy and, alongside the support of her family and friends, exercise is helping her cope. Here, she tells her story.


Life before my diagnosis was great. I’d just gone back to London after moving in with my parents in Birmingham during lockdown, I was living with my best friend, and I’d recently got a new job that I loved. I was in total and utter shock when I found out I had it. I couldn’t even cry because it felt like I was having an out of body experience. I only started crying when I thought about my hair – it’s such an important part of your identity, and I’ve now completely lost it.

The road to diagnosis began with me noticing a small amount of discharge coming out of my nipple in August, but I put it down to having just gone back on the pill. I mentioned it to my GP when I was at the doctors for another appointment in September, but she didn’t ask to check and said it could just be thrush. I wish she’d have examined me and found the lump so that things would’ve got moving sooner, but it was me who found it when I was lying down before bed, during a routine breast exam in October. Things moved pretty swiftly from there, with a referral to the breast clinic, and my diagnosis in November.

My body felt relatively ‘normal’ over the next six weeks because I was offered egg retrieval by the NHS, which meant that the cancer treatment didn’t start immediately and so I didn’t suffer with any side effects. All women under 42 and ‘child free’ are offered this for free, because cancer can potentially leave you infertile. My cancer was deemed low risk enough for me to wait for the next opportunity to have said eggs retrieved, around three weeks later, after about 10 days of scans. Then it was Christmas, so my oncology team decided to wait until the first week of January to start treatment since they don’t like to do so unless it’s absolutely necessary, because of reduced teams.

Help Romilly’s friends raise money for cancer research as they run the Hackney Half marathon.

I really ramped up my exercise routine during this period in a bid to boost my strength and fitness levels and help prepare me for the upcoming chemo. I ran, did a lot of Peloton spin classes with trainer Hannah Frankson, practiced yoga, and also did a few of Joe Wicks’ HIIT classes, and I’m sure this all helped me both physically and mentally.

Once chemo started, I toned things down a lot. Doctors told me my approach should depend on how my body takes the chemo (as with everything, everyone’s different). Walking and yoga is recommended, since chemo can cause tiredness, but some people get a real energy boost from the steroids you’re prescribed and feel good enough to go on 10k runs or 100k cycles. I’m still waiting for my steroid boost, so I’ve taken the light exercise approach.

Despite the fact I’m doing much less, exercise is more important now than ever. Every type of movement helps, no matter how little, especially when it’s in the fresh air. Even when I’m feeling absolutely awful from the chemo, getting outside for a walk immediately makes me feel better. I might only make it to the end of the road and back, but I’m guaranteed to return with a clearer head.

My friend Laura Johnson, a PT at 1Rebel, also put together a low intensity workout for me to do on good days, but outside of that, I’m sticking to walks, yoga and stretching. An amazing breast cancer charity called Future Dreams hosts yoga classes which I love, and they also offer online sessions for people who don’t feel comfortable being around others, particularly when your immune system is so compromised.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was slightly exercise adverse before my diagnosis. The only time I’d ever run further than 5k was, ironically, when I did the 10k Race for Life for breast cancer in October. Unbeknownst to me, I ran it with breast cancer and found the lump a few weeks later, but I’ll never take exercise for granted again – I can’t wait to build some strength back up once my treatment programme is over. My battle so far has really reinforced the importance and value of fitness – not just for my body but, more importantly, for my mental health.

Good food has played a big part in my journey, too. There’s so much hearsay on the internet about certain diets being ‘good’ for cancer, but hardly any of it is evidence-based. I stick to what my doctor tells me, which is a healthy, balanced diet, but I also have a fast metabolism so I want to maintain my weight so that my body can handle the treatment. This might mean enjoying a doughnut or a piece of cake, and that’s totally fine!

For me, an average day includes overnight oats with berries, almond butter and seeds for breakfast, soup with a roll or spinach and ricotta tortellini for lunch, and dinner might be veggie shepherd’s pie, or salmon and vegetables or sweet potato curry. I always have a daily green juice with ginger, kale, spinach, apple and kiwi, and snack on fruit and arrowroot biscuits (great for sickness, for any fellow cancer club members reading this).

I can’t say that any of my exercise and eating habits will work for anyone else with breast cancer, but I will say that listening to your body is essential. I’ve learned to take every day as it comes – it’s such a cliché, but it’s so true. The big picture can seem so scary, so this has really helped me to give my body what it needs, and if that means sitting on the sofa with a film, so be it.

I’m so proud of myself for how I’ve coped so far. My diagnosis completely turned my world upside down; it’s crazy how you don’t think it’s going to happen to you, but cancer doesn’t discriminate. I’m so much more grateful for the small things, like playing with my niece or seeing my friends for dinner, and of course, general good health.

Breast cancer is one of the main cancers that you can be in charge of checking for lumps and signs yourself. Have a feel once a month and get used to what your breasts feel like, because early detection literally saves lives. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to make yourself heard with a doctor or ask for a second opinion. You know your body better than anyone else, and remember the symptoms outside of lumps such as discharge and inverted nipples.

Besides exercise, I honestly don’t know what I’d have done without my friends and family. From gorgeous gifts in the post, to listening to me cry down the phone or just dishing out loads of hugs, they really have made this difficult time so much easier.

Romilly has set up an Instagram page @myittybittytitty to raise awareness and document my journey. I’ve found it really therapeutic to write about my experiences and it’s been amazing to connect with so many incredible women on the same journey as me.

Resources for if you need to talk about cancer

If you have been affected by cancer and need some help, try the resources below:

        • Contact the Macmillan helpline on 0808 239 06 25. (7 days a week, 8am-8pm.)
        • Check out the Macmillan COVID hub, here
        • Speak to a nurse about cancer treatment on the Cancer Research helpline: 0808 800 4040
        • If you have or have had cancer and want to join a support group, Cancer Support UK run these

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