Getting an incurable cancer diagnosis is not “a relief”

I’ve heard reports of people who’ve had cancer saying it came as a relief when they were told – perhaps many years after their initial treatment – that their original cancer had come back and was now incurable.

The reasoning behind this sentiment is that some people have such a bad time worrying that they might suffer a recurrence that when it actually happens, they’re relieved as it means they can at last stop worrying about it.

I don’t know if the accounts are true. As someone recently diagnosed with metastatic cancer, I really hope they’re not. It’d be too sad if they were.

Not everyone suffers from it, but fear of recurrence after you’ve been treated for primary cancer is totally normal. As everyone reading my blog should know, it’s broadly true that once cancer spreads beyond its original site, it can no longer be cured. Secondary cancer can be treated and held at bay for a certain length of time but you won’t get better. For as long as you are alive, you will be living with incurable cancer and everything that entails – psychological as well as physical. You’ll die of it or at the very least with it. So of course you’d be scared it might happen.

However, if your anxiety is so bad that you genuinely feel you’d be relieved to be told you have incurable cancer, I would urge you please to seek help. Actor Kathy Bates told a major cancer conference recently that “life after cancer is a precious gift”. If your anxiety around fear of recurrence is preventing you from seeing that, you owe it to yourself to do something about it.

So-called cancer survivors – I never liked that term – talk about “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. That’s the feeling that at some point down the line – five, 10, 20 (or in my case just over three) years – you’ll be told your cancer has come back and can’t be cured. I completely understand the waiting-for-the-other-shoe analogy, but fear of recurrence shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the currently “no-evidence-of-disease” life you do have.

Let’s be frank. With metastatic cancer or “mets”, the issue is how much longer you’re going to be alive. With fear of recurrence, regardless of your risk, you’re worrying about something that might never happen.

After my treatment for primary breast cancer ended, I never suffered from “survivor’s guilt”, that feeling that some people have at having survived a life-threatening event that has taken and continues to take the lives of so many others. However, I suffered very badly from fear of recurrence. For a while I could think of little else. I wrote about it extensively. Eventually, I sought help.

As I’ve written before, I realised that if my breast cancer did come back, I’d far prefer to look back and see I’d made the most of the “in between” time than to look back and regret that I’d spent that time worrying. I went on two courses, run by two breast cancer support organisations, Breast Cancer Care and The Haven. I learned strategies for coping with anxiety that I still find invaluable. I also talked to a counsellor. I learned to stop worrying. If that hadn’t worked, the next stop would have been my GP.

“Moving forward” after your initial treatment has finished is not easy, but you have to try. While it’s totally normal to go through a period or periods of anxiety, it shouldn’t be a permanent state of affairs.

There’s a saying that no-one on their death bed looks back and wishes they’d spent more time in the office. I think it’s the same here. Surely no-one diagnosed with incurable cancer – or indeed any life-limiting illness – looks back and wishes they’d spent more time worrying that one day the event they were dreading might in fact happen.

Job done. Cycling for seven hours and smashing my fundraising target

The big day has come and gone. On Sunday July 30th, I completed the mass participation 100-mile bike ride through London and Surrey that I’d signed up for in February, raising in the process almost £2,600 for the breast cancer charity, Breast Cancer Now.

Job done, then. For my efforts, I get a very nice medal and the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve raised for Breast Cancer Now an amazing 399% of my initial target of £650 – a grand total of £2,595. I’m delighted to have raised so much and I’m feeling humbled and a little overwhelmed by the support – financial and emotional – I’ve had from friends, family, colleagues, etc, and also in some cases from people I’ve never even met.

The ride took place 17 months after I finished treatment – chemo, mastectomy with immediate reconstruction and radiotherapy – for the breast cancer that I was diagnosed with in July 2015. My friend Juliette and I rode together and crossed the finish line on The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace just over seven-and-a-half hours after we’d set off from the Olympic Park in east London. Excluding snack and loo stops, we completed the ride in six hours and 56 minutes, just within the seven-hour target we’d set ourselves. Was it hard? Well, it could have been a lot harder. We’d done a lot of training and it clearly paid off. Also, we rode at a steady pace rather than raced. Did I enjoy it? I loved it. I swear I had a smile on my face for much of the ride.

The event was the Prudential Ride London Surrey 100. There were some 23,000 cyclists doing either the full 100 miles or a shorter 46-mile route. The atmosphere among the riders was incredible. I was interviewed by Breast Cancer Now an hour or so after finishing for a video the charity was putting together. I was still on a high, but the questions they asked brought me right back down to earth and made me focus on the main reason I was doing the ride. It wasn’t just about getting fit and it wasn’t just about wanting to feel good about myself. It was about raising money that will help fund research into a disease that kills around 11,500 women and a few dozen men in the UK alone every year and about raising awareness around secondary breast cancer. I feel honoured to feature in the resulting video. You can see it here on YouTube.

Juliette and I couldn’t have done the ride any faster and still have been comfortable. There had been heavy rain much of the previous day and overnight but the weather on the day was perfect. We felt good all the way round, heeding the advice we’d been given to snack and drink at regular intervals. The hills in the Surrey section of the ride were tough but I’d been up two out of the three in training so knew I could do them. The challenge was negotiating them at the same time as hundreds of other cyclists – some walking, some going slightly more slowly than you, some slightly faster and others whizzing by as if nobody had told them they were on a hill!

There were some very obvious highlights:

  • Seeing friends (a huge shout-out here to Sarah and Adele!) and family along the route. I hadn’t anticipated just what a thrill that would be.
  • The cheering from the Breast Cancer Now stand on the way out and on the way back through Kingston. It was loud and uplifting and we could hear the shouts long after we’d passed the stand!
  • The support from the public along the route. The Breast Cancer Now cycling jersey is very distinctive with large white dots on a pink background and people would single you out and call out in support.
  • The camaraderie among the more than 200 cyclists riding for Breast Cancer Now. If you passed or were passed by people wearing the team jersey, you’d have a quick word or at least exchange an empathetic smile or nod. Every time it happened, I’d wonder what their story was.
  • Making it up all the hills.
  • Passing the 74-mile mark, as that was the furthest I’d ever cycled in one go until that point.
  • The pace picking up with 30 miles to go, when the last Surrey hill was behind you and you realised you had plenty of energy left and you were – relatively speaking! – on the home straight. There was just one hill after that, and, at 91 miles in, it was a bit of a toughie.
  • With under 10 miles to go, stopping for a photo outside the centre in Wimbledon where I had the chemotherapy and radiotherapy parts of my treatment. I just couldn’t resist. It felt good.

It was great to meet up with Juliette’s husband, Tim, at the finish line. Best of all, though, was hearing and then seeing my husband Andy and younger son Finlay at mile 97 (my older son Jamie was working and couldn’t make it). I’d expected them to be at the finish line and it was fantastic to see them here. The photo they took says it all.

Everything came together at the right time. I had plenty of willing volunteers to train with in addition to Juliette (Sharon, Jane, Elisabeth and Caroline deserve name checks in this regard). Special mention has to go the Balham Cycling Club, a local cycling club that was originally set up in 1897 and was reformed shortly before I started training. The club rides I went on really helped build up my confidence… and fitness! There was yet another helpful coincidence. Some good cycling friends who live close to the Olympic Park where the ride started invited us to stay with them the night before the event. Not only did they cook a delicious, carbohydrate-loaded meal for us that evening, they made breakfast for us on the morning of the ride and even escorted us to the Olympic Park in plenty of time for our 7.44am start. Thanks for that, Jane and Matt.

Some people tell me I’m amazing. It’s flattering and I know what they mean, but I’m really not. I’m doing what I need to do to produce something positive from the very negative experience that is breast cancer. It’s gratifying to have raised so much money for Breast Cancer Now. On a personal level, this has been an important part of my recovery. Doing the ride has brought some sort of closure. Two years on from my diagnosis, I no longer feel I have anything to prove.

We went on holiday the day after the bike ride. While we were away, I finished a beautiful book I’d been reading called Days Without End by an Irish writer, Sebastian Barry. The title refers to that period in your life when “time was not something we… thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever”. A traumatic event such as a cancer diagnosis doesn’t half bring it home to you that time does indeed have an ending.

At one point the protagonist in the novel reflects on “things that give you heart” and says “better note them in your head when you find them and not forget”. The support that people gave me in the run-up to the ride most definitely falls into that category. Elsewhere, the same character says that “Man’s memory might have only a hundred days in it and he has lived thousands”. For me, I’m pretty certain the day of the ride will be one of my hundred.

To those who’ve already sponsored me, I’d like to say another huge thank you. Your donation will help Breast Cancer Now move towards achieving its objective that by 2050, no-one will die of breast cancer. If you’d like to make a donation but haven’t yet done so, it’s not too late. You’ll find my fundraising page here: http://www.justgiving.com/maureen-kenny.