Having the challenge alongside the diagnosis, meant that I had something else to talk about with friends and family rather than the big C

By Irene Wilson 

Part 2 – Lakes to London and beyond 

Lakes to London was to take place on Friday 30th September 2022. Her Spirit Co-Founders Holly Woodford and Mel Berry along with Her Spirit community member and British Triathlon Regional Manager, Sarah Williams each aimed to swim 5km across Lake Windermere, cycle 453km to London and arrive in time to run the London Marathon (26.2 miles/42km) on Sunday 2nd October.  I was drawn to this challenge like a magnet, it had everything I needed at just the right time, and it aimed to raise £100k for Breast Cancer Now, what wasn’t to like!  

The Her Spirit community and others were invited to take part in the Lakes to London Virtual Challenge. This was an inclusive challenge where you could accumulate any distance between 1km and 500km from 21st August to the 2nd of October 2022, with any mix of swimming, cycling, running, walking or wheeling.

I had signed up to Lakes to London and created Team Butt Cheeks (TBC) within days of my diagnosis which aligned perfectly with the start of the virtual challenge start on August 21st, that very same Sunday that I had woken up after a few days of despair determined to carve a more positive path. 

Team Butt Cheeks were formed from a good mix of runners, swimmers, walkers, and cyclists so the perfect blend for all to get stuck in contributing with the activities they enjoyed.  I have always had a bit of a knack creating teams and my job as a business consultant, meant I also have the resources to create the guiding coalition not only to tackle the challenge, but also have some fun and most importantly create a huge positive distraction away from the cancer diagnosis. 

I haven’t really cried much since my diagnosis. I can count only a few occasions where the pain of treatment was intolerable and the tears flowed briefly, never very long before I would pull myself out of that. I think some of my ability to turn a negative situation into positive action comes from years of coaching people how to adapt to change and supporting Scotland in every sport certainly builds resilience.

Although I haven’t cried much, I am acutely aware of my own mental health and wouldn’t hesitate to seek help if I felt I needed it but to be honest, I would rather channel my energy into more positive things, like sport, like exercise, like outdoor adventure. I think a huge part of my emotional resilience comes from the enormous positive energy and activity that came with the Lakes to London challenge set by those inspiration founders of Her Spirit, Mel and Holly. All that said, finding time to accept and reflect the present situation is important and I did in the early days following diagnosis find some processing time, invariably around 3am when I would wake and quietly whisper to myself “f*ck I’ve got cancer”.  

My lumpectomy surgery was scheduled for the 12th of September 2022 later than the consultant wanted, but a lack of capacity and his planned holiday meant this was the earliest possible opportunity.  The tumour at this point was believed to be 22mm and he was confident he could remove it along with also taking some lymph nodes to check for any spread. I had to learn about my cancer and all the treatments very quickly, I had so much information to take in and important decisions to make that it was often overwhelming.

I asked my consultant to draw out the options so I could take them home and try to logically process them. I even created a fishbone diagram, although the purpose wasn’t in its tradition use for identifying root cause, but in formulating all the key components, I would need to have in place to beat cancer. Beat cancer are words nobody with cancer really wants to use as you never really beat it, but you must learn to live with it on your terms.

I had 3 weeks from the start of Lakes to London until my surgery and had committed myself to do the full 500km. My prehab protocol had kicked in and I knew I would need good cardiovascular fitness for the surgery, alongside good muscle mass to help me recover quickly without losing too much form.  I built myself a program around spinning and weights with country walks and pub lunches thrown in for a healthy balance. 

Most days I would be on my spin bike at the gym putting in the miles, making use of the room acoustics and singing little songs to keep me amused or playing with social media posts which honestly was one thing I had never really done before, I was, I am a private person.  Cancer has changed that, these days I post all the time, generally don’t care what I look like, I have done many posts exercising in my PJ’s. The newly found social media extrovert in me has probably come about from the amount of times as a breast cancer patient you have to get your baps out to complete strangers….. 

Back at the gym my spin buddies #badassspinsisters would cycle with me often just after the gym opened, or an hour or 2 before class to help keep me going. Members at the gym would randomly come up and give me a hug, wish me well, chat for a while and I had some very generous sponsorship from complete strangers, many of whom are now solid friends.  

Having the challenge alongside the diagnosis, meant that I had something else to talk about with friends and family rather than the big C. It wasn’t that I didn’t talk about the cancer, I would happily talk about treatment options or dense breast tissue, but I didn’t want to dive into my emotions too often. I don’t think it’s healthy to stay in a sad place for too long and reciting experiences can be triggering. Being sad and miserable or feeling hopeless aren’t going to change the situation so I don’t see the point in that! Friends and family often don’t know what to say either so talking about the gym, exercise, challenge etc is a very welcome and positive relief.

I was asked by a friend of a friend recently what my prognosis is! That question took a few days to digest, I haven’t fully immersed myself in what might be…we are all different, our cancers are individual and treatment options are progressing every day. I am sure the question of how long I think I have got will be one for future 3am conversations with myself but not yet, I have stuff to do, sh!t to get done.

I continued to clock up the distance on my bike to meet the challenge alongside my fellow Butt Cheeks, most of whom I have been friends with for over 30 years and many of them fellow rugby players. Fletch my pal, rugby player and a former GB triathlete took it upon herself to be Butt Cheeks social media champion and regularly posted the Teams progress as well as having a lot of fun with the team name. I became Chief Cheeky McButt and my fellow Butt Cheeks all had plays on the theme.

Fletch also quietly showed her support by making a weekly donation to my personal fundraising pot as well as raising funds for her own, all the money of course was pulled as TBC so it didn’t matter in financial terms, other than it was a lovely little nod to me which needed no words. 

Sunday the 11th was my final spin class before my first surgery, I had over 300km in the bag and pushed out as much as I could give, the session ended with the class applauding and wishing me well for what lay ahead all to the legend tune Come on Eileen from Dexys Midnight Runners, it’s a track that goes all the way back to my early rugby days. That single act brought a tear to my eye, and I found myself buried in my gym towel, briefly acknowledging what was to come and the enormous courage I would need to get through….  

My spin buddy Sammie announced that for every class I missed she would donate her miles to my Lakes to London challenge and the instructor Josh said for any class Sammie couldn’t do he would donate his miles………..result!

I headed off to surgery on the 12th terrified, but I went with huge courage knowing I was loved and that I had so many people thinking of me wishing, praying, so much kindness, it was beautiful. I had found a new value in community and especially communities built around health and exercise like Her Spirit. 

One of the main resources we have against disease is a healthy immune system, exercise can help create and maintain that. Being part of a group or community who do anything to help you keep moving can help with motivation and self-accountability.

Today I am exactly 5 months post chemo. I am still recovering my strength and overall fitness but it’s not easy, exercise sessions are often followed with a need to sleep, sometimes only for 5 minutes sometime for 3 hours. 

This weekend I will be offshore sailing in the Solent, great for overall muscle development, flexibility, mental health and more-my vitamin sea!

None of us know what’s around the corner so if you can get out and move do it!

Next week exercise during surgery and chemo.

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