At 26, my right leg was amputated above the knee. I had bone cancer and chemotherapy hadn’t worked; the tumour had grown and taken over not just my knee, but surrounding tissue and blood vessels too. Drastic surgery was needed to try and save my life. And that – I thought at the time – was the end of my sporting life. There would be no more dance classes, no more horse riding, no more hiking.
And for the next seven years, I didn’t do any exercise. I was too busy trying to get back to normality – walking with a prosthetic limb, and working, and starting a family. But sport – which had once played an important part in my life – was missing, and I felt its absence keenly. I craved the adrenaline rush of a cross-country gallop or the salsa beat of a nightclub, but told myself those sensations were gone forever.
Then I watched the London 2012 Paralympics, and a new world of disability sport suddenly opened up. Here were athletes who looked like me (minus the mummy tummy) but didn’t seem to care that their stumps were on display as they dived into the pool, or that their prosthetic limbs were visible as they stood on the podium. They were running, cycling, jumping, and swimming with the verve and energy that I had lost: I wouldn’t go swimming in case people stared, and I wouldn’t ride a bike in case I fell off. The Paralympics made me realise it wasn’t my disability that was holding me back; it was fear.
So here’s what I did next: I went swimming, wearing shorts to cover up my stump. And yes, people stared as I got into the pool, but once I was submerged in the water, no-one could tell. And in exchange for a few moments of embarrassment, I got half an hour of blissful, weightless, heart-pumping exercise.
I went cycling, digging a ten-year-old mountain bike out of the shed and strapping my prosthetic limb to the pedal with a yellow bungee rope. I got to the end of the road, and fell off, scraping my knee and arm. It hurt, and I swore a lot, but then I got back on. My reward: a wobbly, but peaceful pedal along the canal with my husband in dappled evening sunshine.
There were experiments that weren’t so successful. Hiking caused sores and welts on my stump. Dancing with a prosthetic limb couldn’t mimic the intricate, fast-paced movements I wanted to reproduce. And the less said about an attempt at one-legged skiing at the indoor snow-sports centre, the better. But it didn’t really matter. I had rediscovered the joy of exercise and there was no going back.
It was cycling that reignited my passion most of all. I was slow, and it was hard work, but I loved the feeling of sun (or rain, wind and hail) on my back and the freedom to explore country roads, bridlepaths and trails, sometimes in a group; more often alone.
A year later, with many more miles under my belt, I tried out for the Great Britain Paralympic cycling talent squad, and won a coveted place on the team. I spent the next two years training six days a week, juggling work and kids, and competed at road world cups in South Africa and track world championships in Italy. I had gone from complete inactivity to representing my country at an elite level. But Paralympic glory wasn’t to be.
In 2016 I was diagnosed with cancer again, this time breast cancer. It was a horrible shock, after all I had done to rebuild my life. But this time I knew how sport could help me through my treatment and beyond. I knew I’d feel ill during chemotherapy, so I made a plan: when sickness and fatigue were at their worst I would simply walk slowly to the end of the road and back, just to get some fresh air. On better days, I would sit on my indoor bike trainer and spin my legs for half an hour. And as the side effects of treatment wore off, I would put in a little more effort, or go for a ride outside.
My plan worked, for a while. But it wasn’t foolproof: some days I just felt too sick and wretched to move from my bed. On those days I swapped exercise for Netflix. But on the days when I could cycle, even for a few minutes, I always felt more energised and less stressed afterwards, as this blog I wrote during treatment shows:
The past few days have been really tough emotionally and I haven’t felt like exercising at all. So I haven’t. But yesterday, even though I was feeling groggy and tired after another bad night’s sleep (4am wakeups are becoming standard), I decided to give the turbo trainer a try.
About ten minutes into my workout, a really upbeat tune came on my iPod and I was pedalling as fast as I could, and my heart was pumping, and the sweat was pouring off me (it’s not pretty, but I’m sure getting a sweat on is tantamount to purging negative energy), and suddenly I found myself thinking positive thoughts instead of dark ones like:
“This hurts but I’m going to push through it anyway”
“I’m feeling strong”
“I can do this”
I may not be able to control the progress of my treatment, but I can control the way I deal with it. I’m going to keep on exercising as much as I can, for as long as I can.
And that’s the thing about exercise: sometimes it hurts, and sometimes you fall, but most of the time nothing beats it for its confidence-boosting, mood-enhancing, endorphin-releasing properties. If you can find something you enjoy, it will sustain you through the best of times and the worst of times.
Sally Hurst @onelegcycling