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Swimming Through Cancer - World Cancer Day 2022

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

My first swim after surgery

It's World Cancer Day and while this is nothing to celebrate I hope my blog can help those diagnosed with cancer and their carers know that it's not all sickness and surgery. It's possible to have a life in between treatments.

In August 2020 I was diagnosed with Stage 2b Invasive Ductal Breast Cancer after feeling a small round lump in my left breast 3 months before. Having no family history of breast cancer or risk factors, as a nurse I had convinced myself it was a cyst I'd had in the same place 20 years before. The only difference was this lump was slightly achy. I delayed going to see the doctor as I knew the situation with GP surgeries was chaotic with the impending fallout from the first round of COVID but I was also extremely busy with the surge in open water swimming and the impact it was having on my open water swimming business. I won't deny the floor fell from under me as I received the news. I catastrophised immediately (without knowing the full picture) and fled to my financial adviser to collect my insurance policies to check my life insurance cover 15 minutes after the receiving the news. The strange things you do after receiving bad news!

Following diagnosis I was scheduled for a lumpectomy 3 weeks later with 6 rounds of chemotherapy 3 weeks after that followed by 18 rounds of radiotherapy. Finding out I needed chemotherapy was the hardest news. I needed it because the cancer had spread to one lymph node and the tumour was slightly bigger than they first thought. It was a Grade 3 tumour, the most invasive stage. They removed the lump and 2 lymph nodes. I knew then my life was about to change and this is when I shed tears but not because of the diagnosis, it was because of the treatment that was to follow and the restrictions it could put on my fun-filled active life in the outdoors.

One of the first questions I asked when being told I had cancer was whether I could continue to swim or not. I knew about infection risk with open wounds and also if I exerted myself physically too much after surgery it might hinder deeper tissue from healing but what about chemotherapy? Can people feel well through chemotherapy? My father had testicular cancer in his 40s and he was desperately ill. I was a teenager at the time and it was scary to watch. He survived but his response to treatment had stuck with me. Was it even safe to swim outdoors (and indoors?) Will it put my recovery back? Whatever the answer was to be I was ready to challenge it. Swimming was my sanctuary, my fun, my escape, my business. It's where I really felt like me. I wasn't about to accept I couldn't swim. This is what I was told:

  1. I could swim but if I had any open wounds I should avoid swimming due to infection risk so how the chemotherapy was to be delivered was vital to the decision - peripheral or central.

  2. My immune system would be much lower so public indoor swimming was also advised against (especially during a pandemic!) plus the bugs you can get in freshwater and the sea could be an infection/sepsis risk if I caught something. Chemotherapy lowers your neutrophils too and neutropenic sepsis is not something you want to have!

  3. I should avoid swimming in pools during radiotherapy as the chlorine can irritate the area receiving radiation

After working in intensive care I knew only too well about sepsis and what it can do to healthy body, never mind an immunocompromised one. I hoped I didn't need a central catheter. The cold water was my therapy for everything and I desperately needed it to be my therapy during cancer treatment. Apart from that, no one could say how I'd react to cold water, or whether it could help or hinder. I know that cold water can boost your immune system but if you over step the mark it can lower it so striking a balance was key. It can also reduce inflammation and ease pain so if I found myself with these side effects then off to the water I go (if I could manage!). A simple and possibly naive plan but a negative response was not an option at this time.

Thankfully, my first treatment was administered through a vein in my hand (peripherally) and after the worst 6 days of my life (headaches, nausea, constipation, bloating, no sleep, mouth ulcers, streaming eyes, crying and depression) I started to feel like leaving the house. The first place I fled to was Port Stoth beach at the north end of Lewis, which was likely to be quiet. Neil drove as I was too weak and a bit spaced out with the chemo whoosh still circulating in my head.

Once I got into the water I was grinning from ear to ear and felt the awfulness of the past week had been washed away. I was still a bit sore from the surgery 4 weeks before and if it wasn't for this I could have stayed in all afternoon! The cold seemed to affect my wound a lot and it ached a lot but I didn't really care as I was able to do normal activities in between treatments! I could have cried with happiness ( and a little pain!).

Between every treatment I managed to work and swim but was getting weaker as the weeks passed. It was taking longer to recover from each treatment and each treatment got worse in side effects. I started calling my tablets by swear names. The f*ckers (steroids), the b%stards (anti-sickness) and the shitting wan&er (daily injection) were a necessary evil. I don't think I swore as much in my life and it's kinda stuck with me but I don't mind, others might ☺️. As soon as the side effects of chemo wore off, I ran to the sea to be free. It was my therapy, my identity and my escape from the patient I was desperate not to become. Sometimes it was enough to get into the car and be driven to the beach.