- The most beautiful, sunny, clear, crisp Autumn morning
- A quiet country road on which to meander on a bike
- Being here to celebrate my daughter’s birthday milestone
I’ve been sniffy about e-bikes before now. During my time with the GB cycling team, I scoffed at able-bodied cyclists using battery assistance to get up hills because I was training my one-legged body to climb, even when it was really, really hard. Sometimes, if I lost momentum trying to ascend a particular bugger of a climb (Holme Moss springs to mind) I would simply keel over with the effort and, having picked myself up off the road, find it virtually impossible to get going again without a push-start from a friend. Next time you’re riding up a big hill, stop mid-way, and try to simultaneously push off, get clipped in, and start pedalling without involving the other leg and you will experience the difficulties of a one-legged hill-start. But still, I considered e-bikes ‘cheating’.
But now, in my post-chemo and radiotherapy state (i.e. knackered), and lacking both my former fitness and hubris, the e-bike is appealing. I am currently far too slow to ride with my former club-mates at Garforth Velo, yet I lack the confidence to ride alone. I worry that if fatigue hits (and it does tend to ‘hit’, without warning, and requires instant sofa-time), I will be unable to get home.
I wanted to find out whether riding a bike with battery assistance could help me ride further and faster and inject a much-needed bit of fun back into my life. My friend Graham at Dave Rayner Cyclesport, who supported me throughout my competitive career, offered to lend me his Corratec e-bike for the weekend and so the experiment began.
The e-bike has four modes: eco, tour, sport and turbo, which give progressively greater assistance. With pedal-assist, the battery only kicks in when you pedal, and cuts out again when you reach 15mph – above that speed you’re travelling under your own steam. Leaving my driveway, I put the bike straight into turbo mode and whipped up the hill so quickly I felt like I was riding a motorbike. I instantly started laughing – it felt so strange!
Back in eco mode, the assistance is minor – it feels as if it’s just compensating for the weight of the bike (a massive 24 kilos compared to my 10-kilo road bike), but you also get a greater range of miles – the display on the handlebars said I had 65 miles left in the tank, compared to around 25 in turbo. Since I was nervous about using up the battery too quickly, I decided to stay in eco mode for the first half of the ride. The upright handlebars forced me to sit up and enjoy the scenery, instead of staring at my Garmin data on the stem. I still got a bit of a sweat on up the hills, but I wasn’t out of breath so I didn’t notice my reduced fitness as much as usual.
The e-bike came into its own at junctions, which have always been extra-tricky for me as a one-legged rider. I have to wait for extra-big gaps in the traffic to make sure I can get out quickly enough. If I miss clipping into the pedals on the first attempt, I have to put my foot down and try again; it can be a bit nail-biting. But with the e-bike in turbo mode, as long as I hit the pedal somewhere, the battery kicked in and got me out of trouble. It made riding the roads feel a lot safer.
But most of all, the ride was just FUN, especially on the way back when I flicked between modes to see the full potential of the bike. The road on the way back to my house is a si-mile drag uphill: it’s tiring at the end of a long ride. But this time, I flew up it with a big smile on my face instead of a weary grimace.
Arriving home after 30 miles , I still had 16 miles left in the battery in turbo mode (36 in eco) and I felt good. My leg muscles were aching (but not too much), I was slightly out of breath and I’d enjoyed being back outside with the wind in my face. Looking at my stats on Strava (old habits die hard), I saw that I had a new PB for the uphill ride home in turbo mode, but none for the rest of the ride in eco mode. It was somewhat reassuring to realise that at the peak of my fitness I was still stronger and faster than I am now even with battery assistance.
The e-bike can’t beat the satisfaction of conquering a big climb unaided, or the thrill of whizzing along country lanes with only the swoosh of your carbon wheels in your ears, but it could be a great investment for my rehabilitation. Better start saving my pennies – this bike retails at around £2,000.
Last weekend I took part in a two-day event called Younger Women Together. It’s hosted by Breast Cancer Care for women under 45 with breast cancer. I was nervous about attending because I didn’t know anyone there, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to Talk About Cancer For Two Whole Days…. but I reasoned it was a good opportunity to meet other women in the same position. It was. But I also surprised myself with how emotional I found the experience: I laughed a lot, but I also cried. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Day one began with a medical presentation by an oncology professor about drug therapy, and led into some break-out groups discussing cheery subjects such as early menopause (hello hot flushes and low mood) and breast reconstruction. Yay. Thankfully, the day finished with laughter yoga, which is just as ‘new age’ as it sounds but effective. Any session in which I end up lying on my back on the floor laughing hysterically gets the thumbs up from me.
There was just time for quick swim in the hotel pool (which didn’t irritate my radiotherapy burns as much as I feared) before dinner. I sat with a tremendously entertaining bunch of women and had a fantastic conversation about things that did NOT involve cancer. It was awesome. With a combination of thinly-sprouting hair, headscarves and wigs we probably looked a little strange to our fellow diners, but it really didn’t matter because for the first time in ages I didn’t feel like the odd one out.
Day two was when things got a little emotional for me. And when I say emotional, I mean proper full-on tears-pouring-down-face-breakdown. I walked into the break-out group discussing body image believing I was ‘totally fine’ with my one-legged, one-boobed decrepit body (“Who cares what I look like? It really doesn’t matter…”) but once I listened to other members of my group talking with great honesty about their difficulties in accepting their new shapes, and the effect on their relationships, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of grief for my own losses. And as the tears flooded down my face, and someone offered me a tissue, I realised I was not going to stop crying and I had to leave the room.
At that point, the old me might have gone home to lick my wounds alone. But this time I stuck around, and talked it out with one of the professionals on hand. And I did stop crying, eventually. And I went back out and talked some more with the other women who totally understood why I was having a meltdown. It felt – if not good, exactly – cathartic.
So what did I learn? That there is strength to be found in sitting in a room alongside twenty other young women – all with families, and loved-ones, and jobs and a whole lot more of life they want to live. That alone was worth the tears.
Beverley (aka The Wig) has had a hair cut. She’s gone from long and glam to an angled bob; what’s she’s lost in length, she’s gained in style.
I took her to Andrea’s Hairoom, run by Andrea Long – a hair loss specialist with an extraordinary talent for matching heads to hair. I went in feeling self-conscious in a scalp-covering headband, and came out wearing a swishy blunt-cut wig that actually feels like my own hair. Only better.
She also gave me the confidence to go and get my own multi-length, patchy, post-chemo hair cut at the hairdresser (“it will look immediately thicker”) so I now have a boyish crop which is a zillion times better than my messy bandana/toddler ponytail look of old.
I have a wedding to go to tomorrow, an occasion I’ve been looking forward to for months but didn’t know whether I’d be well enough to attend. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to stay awake past 9pm or sustain much of a conversation, but I do know that – with or without Bev – I’ll give it a good go.
So instead I got the radiographer to take this classic ‘thumbs up’ posed photo and went to John Lewis to buy an over-priced Neom candle (scented to ‘de-stress’) and ate a rather soggy Pret sandwich (crayfish & avocado since you ask).
I know how to celebrate.
There’s a bell fixed to the wall of the radiotherapy reception, in front of a painted rainbow. It’s for patients to ring when they finish their last radiotherapy treatment; mine is tomorrow. When you shake the bell, and its chimes ring out across the department, fellow patients look up from their dog-eared magazines (Countrylife/Chat/Bella circa March 2012) and clap and smile. There’s a sense of “we’re all in this together” and an anticipation of a time in the future when they will get to ring the bell too. But I don’t know whether I should do it.
You see, the end of radiotherapy is not the end of treatment: I will continue to have Herceptin injections every three weeks until January; will be starting on the dreaded Tamoxifen which will bring its own set of early menopause-related symptoms; and will need further surgery to remove the port from my expander implant. And then there are the psychological after-effects of treatment – the anxiety, the dread, the fear of every ache and pain that might signal a return of the disease – and I know from experience that these take much longer to subside than the fatigue and the general malaise of cancer treatment.
Also, I wonder if ringing the bell is disrespectful to patients waiting in the reception queue for treatment that will never end; for the metastatic cancer patients who will have endure radiotherapy and chemotherapy and other drugs for the rest of their days. Do they want to stop and cheer for someone who gets to finish treatment?
But then I wonder whether I am (as ever) over-thinking things. Perhaps a more optimistic, hopeful person might see ringing the bell more simply: the marking of the end of one part of treatment; the beginning of another phase.
I woke up this morning on the wrong side of the bed. Maybe it was the thought of two hospital visits in one day (radiotherapy and prosthetics); maybe I was still fed up after discovering I could no longer squeeze my squidgy bum-and-tum into any of the dresses I’d been hoping to wear to a wedding next month; maybe I’m just bone-tired after months and months of treatment and hair loss and nausea and anxiety, aka Cancer Crap.
Whatever the reason, by the time I’d lain down on the radiotherapy bed – fake, lumpy boob exposed to the chilly room, prodded and pulled into position, dots drawn on with a black market pen – I was crying. Not wailing or sobbing. Just silent tears. Rolling down the side of my face. And because I was being zapped with high-energy X-rays beams, I could neither move, nor stop the tears, so they just kept pouring down my face and pooling in my ears. I’ve never had ears full of tears before. It tickles. Not in a good way.
The radiographer had to come in twice during treatment to reposition the machine and didn’t mention the tears, which I’m grateful for because the worst thing anyone can do when you’re trying not to cry is to draw attention to it. Although a tissue would have been helpful.
I know that I am lucky in so many ways – I have a supportive family, free NHS treatment, and an understanding employer. I know there are thousands of women with breast cancer in much worse situations. And most days I can hold my head up high and turn up for treatment, and feel grateful and positive and thankful and all that stuff that we cancer patients are ‘supposed’ to do.
But other days I have leaky eyes. And there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.
So it turns out I was a little cocky about radiotherapy. A bit, “Meh, it’ll be fine, after chemo I’ll breeze through it…” And I did for the first couple of days. Sure, it’s dull and boring going into hospital every day, finding a parking spot (inevitably on level 3 or above), waiting for the lift to arrive, waiting in the reception queue to check in, waiting to be called, waiting in your gown for the machine to be free… But I felt well enough in the afternoon to go to physiotherapy as usual, referee the kids’ school holiday dramas, cook dinner etc etc.
However, by the weekend I was convinced I was coming down with the flu – achey limbs, shivers and hot flushes (nothing new there), and the overwhelming feeling of walking through treacle.
On Monday, I was so exhausted after two visits to the hospital – for radiotherapy and oncology clinic – that I was struggling to stand up without feeling dizzy so I went to lie down in bed. Which is when I started having chest pains and feeling sick. So of course I did what any cancer-ridden hypochondriac does in times of crisis and consulted Dr Google. My symptoms – sweating, chest pains, feeling sick and panicky – pretty much confirmed a heart attack was imminent, so without mentioning anything to Pete (who was busy wrangling kids and making tea) I took myself off to the GP. And for probably the first time ever, I was able to get in last-minute to see the doctor (hysterical woman on verge of tears can get you past the receptionist, it seems) who confirmed that I was not having a heart attack but was probably a bit overwrought, stressed out and knackered (that’s the medical term). Either that, or I had the failsafe GP diagnosis: a virus.
In my defence, one of the possible side effects of one of the drugs I’m on – herceptin – is damage to the heart, so my rushed self-diagnosis wasn’t totally off the wall. Plus, when you’ve already had two cancer diagnoses, you tend to gravitate automatically to the worst possible scenario, i.e. I do not want to have gone through all this shit just to die of a heart attack. So I am grateful to the GP for saving me an excruciatingly embarrassing trip to A&E which would have resulted in the diagnosis: Drama Queen/Time Waster.
So the moral of this story is: Don’t think you can skip your way through radiotherapy. Side effects cannot be avoided by willpower. Accept that you need to rest. And stop it with the Dr Google consultations.
I was nervous about starting radiotherapy. I didn’t have it with Cancer Number One, so it’s the fear of the unknown. But I needn’t have worried; the most stressful part of the day was getting to hospital (prosthetic limb fail, kids’ packed lunch prep, multi-storey carpark packed to the rafters – the usual).
The radiographers on the unit were absolutely lovely and quickly put me at ease, explaining the procedure, and apart from lying still on a cold, hard bed with your boob out while two people pull you into position, measure your chest with a ruler, and mark you with a black pen, the procedure is painless.
However, I expect I will not be feeling quite as chipper when I’ve repeated this process every day for the next 15 days (bar the weekends).
And the worst part of the whole thing? I can’t wear deodorant, or a bra, or shave my armpit for the duration of treatment AND TWO WEEKS AFTERWARDS.
I can only apologise in advance for the pong.
When I was diagnosed with my first cancer at 26, I felt completely alone. I didn’t have any friends who were going through the same experience and I felt cut off, isolated and afraid: their lives continued in a whirl of work and travel and socialising whilst I battled limb loss and depression and anxiety. Friends visited and talked about parties and beaches and boyfriend dramas, and they would ask about me, and I would hold back – because the furthest I’d travelled was the chemotherapy ward, and the only reason for being up all night was the insomnia and the nausea and the pain. And who wants to hear about that? So I was alone, through my own making, because I cut myself off from friends who wanted to help because I thought they couldn’t, and wouldn’t, understand.
But now? Now I’m not alone. And that’s almost more frightening. I know too many women with breast cancer. And these are young women. Women who have jobs and children and caring responsibilities for elderly parents. There’s my ‘chemo buddy’ Vicki who has three children and has been valiantly holding down a job whilst going through chemotherapy; there’s the mum from school I bumped into at the breast clinic who – unbeknownst to me – already had a year of treatment behind her. There are hundreds of women on the Younger Breast Cancer Network on Facebook – their timeline filled with single mums suffering chemo side effects without the luxury of childcare, and the bewildered newly-diagnosed asking for advice.
And yesterday, a good friend I’ve known for years and years – someone I don’t see very often because we are geographically far apart, but love dearly – told me that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer too. Another young woman, mum, wife, colleague, sister, daughter, friend. And it breaks my heart. Because I am no longer a massively unlucky anomaly; I am the norm. One of many. Too many.
So I say to my lovely friend: I am so sorry you have become a member of the club that no-one wants to join. But you are not alone. We’ve got you.
Freelance Writer // Author
Don't forget to lick your cuticles.
Adventures on a road bike
LIVING WITH TRIPLE NEGATIVE BREAST CANCER
about my breast cancer and me
making sense of the breast cancer experience together
An Open And Honest Account Of My Battle With Bone Cancer
Journey from Runner to Triathlete
For all things Sports Massage
Bone cancer took my leg. Now breast cancer's having a go at my boob. Blogging as therapy.
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