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Breast Cancer - cycling

Christine O'Connell

I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2012.  I should have known it was coming - my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 50s, and my grandmother and great-grandmother in their 70s- but at age 40 breast cancer was not top of mind.  I was focused on my career and had a very active life.

I thought I had pulled a chest muscle at the gym and I casually asked the doctor about it at the end of the appointment about something else. He examined me and immediately booked an appointment for me the next day at the breast clinic. I spent the weekend in denial and the day my biopsy and scan results were due back, I remember going to a particularly hard spin class and thinking if I can do this, how could I possibly have cancer.

But three weeks later I was having my first of eight chemo cycles, having had to cancel my long planned cycling holiday to Cambodia.

Exercise kept me going during treatment. I went to the gym nearly every day, even if just for some light stretching and core exercises.  When I had to stop working because ‘chemo brain’ had set in and I felt useless in the office, exercise gave me a sense of purpose, and goals to work towards.  All of those basic but important exercises I used to ignore when I was well – in some respects by the end of treatment, I was stronger and more flexible than ever.

After I finished radiotherapy, the friend who had go to Cambodia without me signed us up for London to Paris the following summer.  I road a ridiculously heavy hybrid bike and was consistently the last one to reach the hotel at the end of the day. But I loved every minute, and what a sense of achievement when we reached the Eiffel Tower.

As soon as I got back to London, I bought my first proper road bike and I’ve been hooked on cycling every since.  Many bikes and kilometres later, I feel like I have finally found my ‘thing,’ and most importantly an amazing community of like-minded, supportive friends always up for an adventure.

This year unfortunately my cancer came back, and again it was a complete surprise.  The previous week I had done over 250k of training and was cycling when I had a seizure, which led to the discovery of a brain tumour and a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer. The outpouring of support from the cycling community has been extraordinary.

One week after the surgery to remove the brain tumour I was back on the bike – first indoors, then on the paths in the park until the physio was satisfied that my balance was good enough for me to be safe on the roads.

It took me many months to get my strength back, and I worked with a team of specialist physios and sport medicine experts to make sure I was training safely given my treatment regime. I’m still slower than I’d like to be, but 5 months after my diagnosis I did the Etape du Tour, a stage of the Tour of France, with more climbing than I’d ever done. This autumn I did Manchester to London (365k) in a day and Paris to Amsterdam (630k) in 3 days.

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Riding is my way of living with this disease. Being on the bike keeps me sane, an escape from the uncertainty about my prognosis.  Training provides a different way to test myself, to gauge myself not just in terms of scan results or blood tests. Some days the fatigue tests my resolve just to get out of bed, but 2-3 times a week I get up ungodly early to train.  Seeing the sunrise on the bike makes it all worthwhile and despite too few hours in bed, I feel energised and for a small window in time, I forget I have stage 4 cancer.

I speak regularly on a Living Well programme at my oncology centre about the importance of exercise for cancer patients and I always say don’t think you need to cycle a 100k or run a marathon.  Any exercise you can manage is positive; do what makes you happy and helps you manage your treatment and side effects. Start small and if you can share the experience with friends, even better.

I’ve also started an annual cycling campaign called One More City.  We’re aiming to fund a Ph.D working on secondary breast cancer at Imperial College London.

The ethos of ‘One More City’ is that the journey is never over; we are always progressing towards the next city, there are always more kilometres to do, more climbs to conquer and more challenges to face.  This is akin to the reality of anyone living with cancer, especially secondary cancer, for whom the challenge is never over; there are always more treatments to endure, more scans to face, more side effects to manage.

This October, 27 of us made it from Paris to Amsterdam.  In 2019, we’ll set out from Amsterdam to the next destination… currently under investigation.  And so on... I reckon we’ll be back in London in 10 years. And then we start again.

Click for more information about One More City