Turning A Threat Into An Opportunity
My name is Kate Parkyn and I would like to share with you my cancer story. Actually I prefer to call it our cancer journey because it is not a story that affects me alone.
One year ago, 2 weeks before my 50th birthday I found a lump in my breast and shortly after that I got to hear the words that everyone dreads, “you have cancer”. I cannot say that I had thought too much about what it would feel like to ever hear those words because to be honest, I always thought it was the sort of thing that happened to somebody else, and not to me. I considered myself to be quite a healthy person, I always went for my mammograms, I have always enjoyed sport and I thought that I was fairly careful about what I ate. Ok, so maybe the kilos that I would lose every spring ready for summer were getting more and more difficult to shift, and I never quite seemed to get down to the weight that I was intending to get to… and even though the glass of wine that I enjoyed with dinner every evening had somehow turned into 3 or 4 glasses a night I certainly didn’t think I had anything to worry about. It was not like I was an alcoholic! Or a smoker!!
So after I heard the “you have cancer” I sat there for a few moments thinking that this surely must be a case of mistaken identity. But apparently there was no disguising the fact that the small cyst like lump that I had found, myself, the previous week was in fact a tumour. And there was no escaping the fact that I actually now had cancer!! The initial disbelief about the diagnosis was followed immediately by an overwhelming sense of fear, there was a huge, very heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had never felt before and at the time it felt like it might never go away again. It sounds a bit dramatic but I really felt as though I had been given a death sentence.
My Husband, Dave, was with me when I got the horrific news and we both left the doctors office that day in a bit of a blur. Although he had been completely knocked sideways by the diagnosis, when we got outside he hugged me and told me not to be scared, then he said “we are both in this together and I promise you we will make something really positive happen out of this”. While I appreciated his optimism, on that day it was extremely difficult to imagine how that could possibly be the case.
I realise that I am very fortunate to have a loving and incredibly supportive family. It was not easy to tell my children, even though they are grown adults who were aged 22 and 19 at the time, and of course they and my mom, sister and brother were all extremely worried, although they tried not to show it. I felt so guilty that I was causing anxiety to all the people I love most. It just didn’t seem fair. I wondered if anything would ever be the same again. Would they always look at me differently; treat me differently; think about me differently. I liked my life as it was. Normal. And suddenly there was no normal and the future was totally uncertain. Dave immediately committed to support me through the process and took 6 weeks off work to help me through the early stages and my wonderful mom moved in with us for a while after the operation it is easy to forget how such a journey really affects those close to you..
To cut a very long story short, after many, many tests and procedures it was discovered that I also had a tumour in the other breast. I actually took this news quite well because I was so relieved that the cancer had not spread to my bones, (and we had some very pretty pictures of my skeleton to prove it) , that this new discovery didn’t seem quite so bad, in fact I felt quite lucky that this tiny tumour had been discovered and could be removed during the lumpectomy that was already scheduled. I guess someone thought to reserve a bit more time in the operating block and I personally made sure that the anaesthetist knew that the operation was going to be longer than originally thought, as I didn’t fancy waking up half way through! He put my mind at ease and assured me that it doesn’t work like that!
It was around this time that I found ESCA CancerSupport. I had decided to do some research to see if there were any support services in the local area as I really wanted to speak to somebody who had been in the same situation. The first time I walked into the ESCA CancerSupport drop in centre I immediately burst into tears! In front of a room full of strangers!…. I really hope that won’t happen today but who knows!! Apparently it’s not the first time that sort of thing has happened at ESCA CancerSupport and nobody batted an eyelid really…. I was quickly given a cup of tea and just like that I was welcomed into the ESCA CancerSupport family. The subsequent support I got from people who had been in the exact same situation as me was amazing and very comforting. I was also lucky enough to be able to take part in an 8 week MBCT course (Mindfulness course for Cancer Patients) run by Raynelle and Thea (2 of ESCA’s CancerSupport therapists). The course was fantastic and very timely for me as it helped me to get through the difficult few months of treatment and taught me some valuable life skills. Even with the best family and friends surrounding you there is a different kind of reassurance that comes from talking to someone who has lived through what you are going through. As well as peer support there are some amazing professionals there to speak to along with an incredible library of just about every book ever written on the subject of cancer and healing it seems!.
And so ,,, the treatment…. after a bilateral lumpectomy and 5 weeks of daily radiotherapy my gynaecologist called one Friday afternoon, to give me the incredible news that I did not need to have chemotherapy! She said she thought that I might like to know before the weekend that was incredibly kind and thoughtful of her. There were a lot of happy tears that day! So the next phase of my treatment was Hormone therapy. I started taking Tamoxifen every day and because my cancer was estrogen receptor positive (ER+) I was also prescribed Zoladex injections to put me immediately into an artificial menopause. Artificial it may have been but it still came with real symptoms!
From the very first visit to the Doctors office to discuss my treatment plan, I wanted to know what I could do to help myself. My wonderful gynaecologist and oncologist both told me that exercise could be very helpful. So I decided to do everything I could to minimise the unwanted side effects.
It was at this point, and in the spirit of helping myself, that my husband and I decided it was time to try to do something different to challenge ourselves and give something back for the incredible medical care that I had received. After a bit of Googling I came across Ride London …. A 100 mile bike ride on August 2nd starting at the Olympic Stadium and winding through London out to the Surrey Hills and back for a hopefully triumphant finish up the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace! And all of this on closed roads!! We decided to sign up to raise money for a UK based Breast Cancer Charity called Breast Cancer Now. It seemed perfect. It actually sounded so amazing that we kind of skipped over the fact that it was 100 miles and to be honest we were a bit surprised when someone pointed out later that it was 160 km! At the time the idea of cycling 100 miles in 1 day was way out of our comfort zone and frankly seemed a bit crazy! The furthest I had ever cycled in a day was 50 km and that was with a 2-hour stop for lunch! I had never been on a road bike and the thought of being clipped into my pedals was terrifying!! However it was only March and we had a lot of time to prepare… or so we thought!
We decided we needed some help to prepare so we contacted Tania Cotton, a good friend of ours who has been helping our family for various sport related ailments for many years. She is a movement analyst, physiotherapist, avid cyclist and just generally a very positive, motivating, super fit person. At the time we contacted her she was coincidentally at the beginning of a new project producing a public information film called MovementWise and because of our journey my family got to be very involved in this! The film you can now see on the MovementWise.org website enables us to share with you our our life-changing experience. But basically we got lots of advice, invested in some road bikes and had them professionally fitted (highly recommended)…. after several outings on my new bike, I finally managed to remember to unclip properly and stop falling over every time I stopped. I kept thinking that 50 year olds really shouldn’t be falling off bikes, I had even managed to knock my husband off his bike into a very large muddy puddle which was actually hilarious although he didn’t appear to think so at the time! Maybe it was because he wearing a brand new very bright yellow cycling jacket at the time! Anyway we started a training plan to get ready to cycle the 160 km.
My new training plan and actually the whole idea of being ready for Ride London suffered a bit of a setback when I started to have some menstrual bleeding even though I was having the Zoladex injections every month and was supposed to be in full menopause. A hysteroscopy was unable to rule out the possibility of an endometrial cancer, which is an increased risk when taking Tamoxifen, so we decided it best that I have a full hysterectomy. Clearly there is never a good time to have an operation but frankly the timing sucked!… The procedure on April 1st was followed by 9 weeks of Doctor enforced NO cycling! At this point it seemed extremely unlikely that I would be ready to cycle 100 miles as I was only going to be left with 8 weeks to prepare before the event and any article I could find on the subject advised a minimum 3-month preparation period. However, as soon as I was allowed, we started back on the cycling program very gently and gradually increased the mileage on our bikes anyway.
Just when I was really starting to think that I wasn’t going to be ready Tania decided to test my limits. This involved a day out in Gruyere, Switzerland, cycling up a Col! While drone cameras hovered overhead and Keith Partridge, a renowned BBC cameraman did some filming from the back of a van and another cameraman cycled alongside me while I cursed and winged and sweated (it was 35 degrees that day in July); I had a big meltdown! Saying it was ridiculous to think that I could cycle up a mountain for the first time only a few months after a major operation…. however, something amazing happened as I kept going and realized that it would be much less tiring if I stopped winging and saying I couldn’t do it ….I also realized that if I just kept going, albeit slowly, I wouldn’t actually die and I might even get there in the end! Which is exactly what happened… The euphoria when I reached the top was incredible! I felt like I could conquer the world and told everybody so! And I knew at that point that I could definitely cycle the 100 miles in August, because even if it was difficult I knew I would do it anyway. What an incredible life lesson that was…. in fact the reason I am able to stand here today and talk to you … something I would have previously thought impossible, was because of my change of mindset about challenges on that day in Gruyere.
This is me and my beautiful daughter Sam at the top of Col de Jaune. We are both clearly happy that I made it to the top!… She had spent the day with us in Gruyere driving around some of the cameramen.
And so dawned the 2nd of August, a bright, sunny beautiful day in London, talk about fortunate!…. 7 hours and 21 minutes after setting off outside the Olympic Stadium, we rode down the mall and crossed the finish line in front of Buckingham Palace. It was an incredibly emotional day for so many reasons. Our son Josh, and daughter Sam, along with my mom and sister had flown over to England and were waiting for us at the finish line which meant so much to us and kept us going those last few miles. We were so grateful to all the people who had supported and sponsored us and enabled us to complete the ride…. at the same time enabling us to raise money for Breast Cancer Research. For me it was also a confirmation that a cancer diagnosis and hysterectomy didn’t necessarily mean that life had to change for the worse. Indeed in many ways our life has changed for the better since the diagnosis and we are excited by what lies ahead. I know now that I can challenge myself to do things that I never thought possible…. and I am so much more grateful for every day things that I may have taken for granted in the past. With my husband and our families amazing support, this, is the positive that came from that awful day when i was diagnosed… I really feel that I have been given a second chance to live life to the full and I truly intend to make the most of it! This way forward has now become our new normal.
I just want to finish by telling you the reason why I want to share my story with you. I realised that I have learned a lot of things on this journey and also wondered a couple of times why on earth it took a cancer diagnosis to give me the kick up the backside I needed to make positive changes to mine and my family’s diet and lifestyle. In the past year I have ditched my diet coke addiction, and my Cadbury’s dairy milk habit and I have stopped eating all processed foods. I have massively cut down on sugar and my wine intake has gone from 3 to 4 glasses a day to less than 3 to 4 glasses a week. I can also confirm that the increased exercise has brought many different benefits, not only the reduction of side effects, hot flashes and aching joints etc. but by exercising and eating healthily…. I never feel hungry anymore and am now buying clothes 2 sizes smaller, am 10 kilos lighter (as is my husband) and feel fitter and healthier than I have done for years. Yet. I still get to eat chocolate everyday… Who would have guessed that this was possible?!!
So…..My advice is to not wait to live and love your life. Challenge yourself physically (the feeling when you achieve your goal is so worth any difficulty it may have taken to get there), let your family and friends know how much you appreciate them, be mindful and take a few minutes every day to just stop and breathe. There are clearly no guarantees in this life but why the heck wouldn’t you try and stack the deck in your favour? I certainly intend to.
Now… onto the next challenge! What’s yours?
Thank you for sharing my journey,