Building a Better Health Service


Mary overcomes Steps and Cancer Challenges

mary steps cancer web

Mary Holden (left) with the other leaders of the Coombe Step Challenge teams.

The real prize for the joint winner of the recent HSE staff steps challenge was simply being able to take part, two years after a diagnosis of incurable cancer.

Mary Holden, Communications Manager at the Coombe Women & Infants University  Hospital in Dublin, said the Steps to Health Challenge gave her a reason to get back to exercise and boost her health at the same time.

“The last Steps Challenge I did was a couple of years ago, and my team was the winning team here in the Coombe. It was just months before I was diagnosed with breast cancer which, on diagnosis, was also found to have spread to my lungs and bones as well. My cancer is incurable but treatable,” she explained.

“Since November 2016, I have had treatment every 28 days but am still, thankfully, holding down my full-time job. Cancer is a bit of a menace but, as far as I'm concerned, is simply a chronic illness that I have to get on with.”

Mary got the go-ahead from her oncologists to take part and she hasn’t looked back since.

“The oncologists don't recommend extreme dieting and extreme exercise and in any event, cancer does give you the excuse to indulge in treats and be too tired to do anything but sit on the couch. So I indulged and my weight went up. To get it back down I needed to reduce the treats and my oncology team allowed me to increase my limited exercise with the Step Challenge,” said Mary.

“So, the Step Challenge has been a blessing. I've gone from an average 8,000 or 9,000 steps a day pre-challenge to 20,000 and over on some days. Any prize is beside the point. The real prize is simply being able to do the challenge every day. The bonus is continuing it after the challenge ended.”

She stressed that the cancer is just something that she has gotten used to living with and is determined not to let it stop her from enjoying life.

“Professor Chris Fitzpatrick, former Master of the Coombe Hospital was wonderfully helpful when I was first diagnosed. He got my head around it by telling me that I’m not dying of cancer but living with it. He urged me to treat it like it was a chronic illness such as asthma, which so many people live fulfilling lives with. The challenge helped by allowing me to put myself on a level playing field with other people and to compete. Out of my team of 13, I came in at fourth place which I was very happy with.”

Mary said she would always recommend exercise to people living with cancer.

“Exercise is something you can control. You can start off gently and work up to your comfortable limit. I think exercise needs to be fun not an endurance test. I’m constantly amazed at how many steps I can clock up instead of standing still,” she said.

Mary and her ‘Scrambled Legs’ team of 13 Coombe colleagues put in the hard work, getting their steps up. There was even some healthy competition among them, comparing their phones and pedometers daily.

“The feel-good factor around getting the numbers up during the challenge was fantastic. I went from 106k in week one 153k in week five. I was the team coordinator and took a softly softly approach to motivating the team as I didn't want to turn anyone off. I sent a text on Monday morning telling everyone that it was a new week and to just do what you can do. If people didn't get a good week I told them they were brilliant no matter how low their count was. There was even an almost informal competition among staff to be the first to send in their weekly step count to me,” she revealed.

"My advice to other leaders in motivating other people to reach their goals would be to just be kind. Be encouraging. Thank people regularly for making the effort, no matter how small that may be.”

And the step counting hasn’t stopped just because the official challenge has ended.

“Some of us have continued to walk since.  We took off the week afterwards but have started back again. I let my heels relax during that week off and it would have been easy to get complacent and stop. But I am back at it again,” said Mary.

“I’m lucky that I use public transport getting to work so I pack in a 20 minute walk in the morning to the DART station and use my time on the platform walking up and down. This morning, for example I walked 3.91 kilometres (according to my Garmin) before 8am. It’s really just a question of not wasting any time by standing still.”