When I got my diagnosis of breast cancer, a month after my 50thbirthday, I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life. I was training for the Women’s Head of the River Race which takes place on the Boat Race course, and my first reaction when I got my diagnosis was irritation that I wouldn’t be able to compete!
My treatment consisted of a mastectomy, four months of chemotherapy (FEC-T) and a year of herceptin injections. I was incredibly lucky as my surgeon immediately understood how important my rowing was to me and was as determined as I was to get me back on the river as soon as possible. My oncologist proved equally supportive of my plans to keep on exercising.
What I didn’t get from my team was specific advice about how to pace myself or how much I could do. The post-op physio I was assigned was pretty cautious, so although I followed her initial advice to the letter, I built up more quickly than I think she would have liked, starting on the rowing machine (very gently) and then, eight weeks after my mastectomy, making it back on the river just once before my chemo started. It helped that I’d chosen not to have a reconstruction (I’d made that decision largely with rowing in mind!)
I’d initially assumed that chemo would prevent me from rowing altogether. In common with most people, I imagined I’d feel terrible all the time and wouldn’t be able to do more than shuffle around my bedroom. Thankfully, just before chemo began, I came across the wonderful Liz O’Riordan, who had exercised all through her chemo and encouraged me to do the same. She suggested a half hour walk every day (excluding the days when I felt really terrible) and normal exercise in the good weeks. Suddenly it felt like the sun had come out.
At the same time, I was put in touch with the equally fabulous Helene Raynsford, a Paralympic gold-medal-winning rower and breast cancer survivor. She, brilliantly, had rowed during her chemo and gave me sound advice on pacing and hand hygiene (especially important on and around a river).
And so it was that I managed to row all the way through chemo. I didn’t set myself any goals – I just aimed to do what I could. I decided to stick to a single scull so I could cry off at any time and could take things at my own pace.
My first few outings were very tentative as I didn’t know how much I’d be able to manage, but soon my confidence grew and I would manage a good hour’s rowing at a time, with some pressure pieces to get my heart rate up. I only rowed in the weeks when I felt well. In the less good weeks I’d go for a daily walk (except on one or two, face-down-on-the-sofa days towards the end of my treatment) but when I did manage to row it felt amazing! For one glorious hour my side effects would miraculously vanish and there was just me, the sunshine on the water, the swish of the blades and the life-affirming feeling of doing what I loved.
During my first cycle I set a secret target to compete at a local regatta shortly after my chemo had ended. I knew it would be tough – the last cycle in particular made me feel as weak as a kitten – but I was determined to see it through. And so exactly four weeks and two days after my final infusion, I raced at Ross Regatta (my first ever race in a single scull). Not surprisingly I didn’t win, but I finished a respectable three lengths behind my opponent and showed both myself and everyone else that I was back.
The support I had from my rowing friends, both at my club and in the rowing world at large, was overwhelming. My crewmates swung into action, raising money for a local breast cancer charity, Breast Cancer Haven (they even had special rowing tops printed), visiting me at home, sending gifts and messages, taking me to chemo appointments, and mostly importantly, keeping me laughing. I received flowers from clubs I’d barely heard of and gifts from rowers I’d only met online. It was incredible.
Not everyone is going to be able to do what I did, nor should they feel under pressure to, but to anyone about to embark on cancer treatment, I’d say, do what you can. Try and get outside every day, even if it’s just a brief walk to the post box or a stroll around the garden, and if you feel up to doing more than that, then do. Cancer treatment doesn’t have to mean the end of your sporting life. It’ll do you the world of good and will show your cancer who’s boss!