Training for health

Robert Maitland

Robert Maitland used the strength and determination that he relied on as a professional water polo player to tackle a cancer diagnosis.

Words: Sarah Marinos

Days before Christmas in 2013, Robert Maitland’s life took an unexpected detour. For a few months, he’d felt short of breath and light-headed but he thought he simply had a minor chest infection. Then an X-ray revealed a 14cm tumour in his chest and Maitland was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“When I went for the X-ray, I was expecting to be told it was nothing, but the tumour was so big that one of my lungs couldn’t expand properly,” recalls Maitland. “I was on my way up the coast for a holiday with my girlfriend and instead I had to tell my parents I had cancer. I was in huge shock – before then, I rarely had a cold.”

Maitland, 31, is a business improvement consultant in Brisbane, but previously he had travelled the world playing water polo professionally, having started the sport when he was 13. “I was always into water sports, like surf lifesaving and swimming,” he says. “But a school friend played water polo and suggested I have a go and that was it.”

By the age of 16, he was a member of the Australian junior water polo team and then joined the national men’s team in 2005. The sport took him to South Africa, Europe, the US and China, and Maitland competed while studying human movement and education at the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney.

When he decided to turn professional, he moved to Spain for five years, where he trained in Barcelona and finished a Master of Commerce, as well as making time to represent Australia at four world championships and the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

“That was a surreal experience,” says Maitland of his Olympic experience. “If you were an Olympian in any sport, you were treated like a celebrity, which was nice for a couple of weeks! And being in the athletes’ village and around superstars of world sport was unforgettable.”

When Maitland missed selection for the London Olympics in 2012, he retired from the sport and returned to Brisbane in early 2013. “Later that year, my father began training for a long-distance swim in Europe and I agreed to do that with him, so I got back into the pool,” he recalls. “At first I thought I was unfit, because I hadn’t swum for a while, but during the next few months I just got worse. I’d swim a lap and feel like I was about to drown, like someone was choking me.”

And so came the Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis in December that year. “It’s hard to describe the shock, but I’m a pragmatic person,” says Maitland. “I wanted to know what it was and how it could be treated. Then I set goals. I knew the treatment plan – chemotherapy and radiation – and I knew what I had to do. As an athlete, you always have a training plan. You know it will be hard for several months, but you know that training has to be done. I took the same approach with the treatment.”

Maitland’s prognosis was good, and he had eight months of chemotherapy and radiation that finished in August 2014. Keeping a balance in life during this time was important. “I tried not to change things too much, to not let the treatment and the disease take control of my life,” he says.

“I was fairly active beforehand and I tried to maintain that. I’ve always enjoyed healthy food and I continued to eat well. I’ve never smoked but I had the casual drink and I stopped that.”

Maitland continued to work and exercise as much as he could. After treatment on a Monday he’d feel ill, but by the Wednesday evening he’d go for a light walk and by the Thursday he was back in the office. “I played tennis with mates on Thursday night and that was always a goal: to be in good enough shape to have a bit of a hit,” he says.

Recent scans show the cancer is in remission, and Maitland is continuing to lead the healthy, active lifestyle that helped him through his treatment.

Most days he swims, surfs, plays tennis and touch football and has now added yoga to his activities. “It helps me relax and have a think about things,” he explains.

He is now also taking a more balanced approach to work. “I work hard when I am at work but it doesn’t control my life,” he says. “You have to work to pay the bills, but life and friends, getting out there and enjoying life and being healthy is much more important to me than making money.”

What is Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

Hodgkin’s lymphoma begins in our lymphatic system. White blood cells that protect the body from infection and disease multiply and form lymphoma cells that become tumours in the lymph nodes or glands. The most common first symptom is painless, swollen glands in the neck, under the arm or in the groin. Night sweats, weight loss and tiredness can also be symptoms1.

The causes of the disease are unknown, but researchers believe genes and environment may both play a role. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is more common: about 4,500 Australians a year are diagnosed with this illness compared with about 550 people a year who are diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma2.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is also more common in people over 65, while Hodgkin’s lymphoma most commonly develops in younger people (15–29 years) and older people (60–70 years), as well as occurring more frequently in males than females. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the usual treatments1.

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Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.