By Catherine Larke.
I should say before I start that cancer is very personal – I can only talk about my experience of it. No 2 people will have the same diagnosis or experience of dealing with cancer.
Right from the start I knew I was lucky (something that always astounded those I told about my diagnosis.) My breast cancer was spotted by a routine mammogram – so small I couldn’t feel it, but it had already spread to my lymph nodes. Who knows what the story could have been 6 months later? I was also lucky in some ways that I was initially told it was a tiny lump that would be ‘whipped out’ with a lumpectomy. Various MRIs, CTs and ultrasounds later discovered 2 different types of cancer in each breast. I needed a double mastectomy, a clearance, 6 months of chemo and a month of radiotherapy followed by surgery to complete my reconstruction. At the time it seemed that every time I spoke to my surgeon the news got worse, but in retrospect if I’d been with handed that news in all one go I may have collapsed.
What I found amazing about my diagnosis was the reaction from more or less everyone. Friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, my surgeon and breast care nurses. The love and support astounded me. People I’ve met and lost touch with over the years sent me messages. Even if they were miles away they wanted to say something to me; to help, to console, to commiserate. Whatever, it was hugely appreciated, even the sometimes clumsy, awkward comments – people cared enough to say something. I gained two new nicknames, one similar to Rachel’s – Nork Warrior (don’t ask me why but that’s what my friend calls her boobs) which became the Norkless Warrior after surgery, and, after telling another friend about the radioactive pre-surgery injection which she said made me sound like a Super hero, SuperPoochWoman (and I’m really not going into the Pooch bit.)
When I told my sister-in-law that I needed chemo she immediately said ‘ok we’ll cancel going to Harry Potter world, we’ll cancel the bike ride…’ I was appalled. There was no way I was going to let this damn thing affect my plans or dictate to me. I was determined that cancer wouldn’t change me.
That was May. In June we went on holiday to our beloved Mallorca for I think the 20th time. The only difference was this time was the medical drain hanging out of my arm pit. My husband Bill was very concerned that I shouldn’t over-do it so we agreed that our normal hikes over the mountains were not on the menu. Three days of doing nothing nearly drove us to divorce and remembering my determination not to let cancer stop me we set off on one of our favourite walks, ending up 4 hours later at a tiny bar in a tiny mountain village drinking the best pint of San Miguel ever, and we started to enjoy the holiday.
In July I started chemotherapy sessions, initially one session every 3 weeks (armed with my lovely chemogift bag). I’d been told by one of the Breast Care nurses to book some ‘week 3’ treats, which was great advice. The first week of chemo was hard, a mixture of being full of steroid induced energy and exhaustion. I managed to go to the gym every day, not my usual leaping around but something – pilates, cycling – and it made me feel so much better. However, as the chemo wore on the gym sessions got fewer and fewer, and that’s a regret. Every time I went, no matter how tired I felt, it made me feel better. I keep reminding myself of that when I feel like retreating to the settee – carry on, get moving. It helps.
Back in October 2018, before the diagnosis, we’d signed up, with my brother Jeremy and nephew Ed, to the Princes Trust Charity bike ride – 45 miles from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle. At the time it seemed a challenge but one I’d have plenty of time to train for. 5 weeks before the event I thought I should perhaps put a bit more effort into that training. Bill had assumed that we’d cancel the event and that really spurred me on, so we set off on a training ride managing 13 miles (mostly up hill, or at least it felt that way) in 2 hours. The next day I emailed all of our business’ clients to tell them all about it, shamelessly playing on the fact I was undergoing chemotherapy. The response was amazing with some incredibly generous donations to a very good cause. Between the 4 of us we raised nearly £3000 for The Princes Trust.
The day of the ride arrived – Bill still insisting we should abandon it (there hadn’t been any further training) but I was adamant. Never for a minute did I think I wouldn’t complete it. I had prepared myself for severe pain and suffering and a very long time in the saddle. Once again we were lucky, the rain stopped shortly after the start line so at least we were dry although we had a full on head wind (the remnants of Hurricane Lorenzo) the whole way.
I was so excited and London in early morning light is lovely. But excitement can only get you so far, about 22 miles to be exact, at which point my legs just stopped. We got off and walked for a bit before starting again much more slowly. This was just about the start of the Surrey Hills stretch. Hill after long hill. We stopped again. Poor Bill, who refused to leave me as brother and nephew had long ago, was frozen crawling along at my pace (think Brian the snail.) Eventually he suggested that this would be a good spot to get picked up. That was it, no bloody way was I giving up now with a mere 23 miles to go. Re-energised I steamed up the next hill overtaking slow coaches, ignoring husband’s calls to pace myself. We made it to the 35 mile mark, which we knew meant mostly downhill, and at that point 10 miles seemed nothing. Ha! What a joke. There were plenty more hills and I was exhausted, the cycle up the Long Drive toward Windsor Castle was the cruellest, so close to the end but such a nasty long hill. But eventually 5 1/4 hours after leaving London we rode over the finish line, almost in tears (me not Bill.) I was so relieved it was over but so proud of myself for keeping going and not being defeated. It had been much harder than I’d expected but worth every mile.
Later we sat in the hot tub with a bottle of champagne to celebrate, relax our muscles and to thank heaven for the foresight of buying padded shorts. It was then that Bill said I should write this blog – to let other people know that life can still be good even with cancer. Just like him to be thinking of others even after all he’s been through – in many ways I think its been harder on him than on me.
Cancer is horrible but its’s still possible to carry on with your life, take on new challenges, use the love and support, enjoy not worrying about the silly things. I’m not saying I’m glad I had my diagnosis but it’s given me an opportunity to put my life into perspective. I have so much to be grateful for. It’s made me realise what I can do, how lucky I am to have such wonderful people in my life; old friends and those I’ve met as a result of the cancer and its also made me far less judgemental and more considerate of others.
I said earlier that I was determined not to let cancer change me. I’ve failed in that – it has changed me, but for the better.