Living life with a new intensity… and Olivia Newton-John

It’s only June and already it’s been a busy year. I’ve gone skiing – twice, once with family and once with friends. I’ve been to Spain – also twice, once when I took my mum to Malaga for a few days, and then later to Valencia for a tennis weekend with some friends. I’ve been up to Glasgow – for work, but I made the most of it and stayed with my mum – and I’ve gone up to Edinburgh for a friend’s birthday party. I’m not finished yet; in less than two weeks, I’m off to New York to spend a few days with my beloved godmother.

I know my carbon footprint is massive with all these flights but my priority at the moment is seeing people who matter to me and spending time with them. I do look after the environment in lots of other ways.

20170531_004948 (4)You’re living life with a new intensity and you’re feeling good. You’re in a running club and on top of that you’ve joined a cycling club. You’re doing 10-mile runs (this coming Sunday, run number above) and 74-mile bike rides (last Sunday). You’re playing lots of tennis. You’re enjoying work. You’re “giving something back” by doing some volunteering with a couple of charities.

You’re hugely appreciative you have the means and the time to do all these lovely things. It’s all great fun but you’re not fooling yourself. You know that, having had breast cancer, the reason you’re so active is that your drivers are different from most people’s. You’re acutely aware of the fragility of life and of how quickly things can change and you know that you’ll never again take your health or your time here for granted.

It’s nearly two years since you were diagnosed with Stage 3a breast cancer. Your treatment went really well. You’re tolerating well the daily hormone therapy you’re taking to reduce the risk of your cancer coming back. You’ve got nothing to report to the consultant breast surgeon when you see him for your latest six-month check-up a couple of days before you fly to New York.

The thing is, once you’ve had breast cancer, it’s never really over. Just ask Olivia Newton-John, or rather Sandy from Grease, who announced a few days ago that the primary breast cancer she was successfully treated for 25 years ago – yes, you read that right, a whole quarter of a century ago – has come back in her spine. That pain in her lower back that she thought was sciatica was in fact metastatic or secondary breast cancer. And secondary breast cancer, while treatable, is currently incurable. Not that you’d know that from most of the reporting of the Newton-John news.

Everyone who’s had a cancer that can return deals with it differently. My way, for the moment at least, is not to leave for tomorrow what you can do today. I know too well that what’s just happened to Newton-John could happen to me at any time – tomorrow, next year, in five years or indeed in 25 (although I have to say if I’m still here and it comes back in 25 years’ time – at which point I’d be 78 – I reckon I’ll have done well).

Even if I hadn’t had breast cancer, the news about Newton-John’s recurrence would have been upsetting. As Rosie Millard writes in a brilliant article in The Independent newspaper, “the news that the Grease star’s cancer  has returned grips women of a certain age who grew up looking to her as something of a lodestar of our own happiness and maturation”. I saw Grease for the first time as a teenager in the summer of 1978 in Vancouver, where I spent the whole of the school holidays – courtesy of my great uncle who lived there – enjoying a freedom I’d never had before. The film hadn’t come out yet in Britain and so for a few months back home in Glasgow I had rare bragging rights among my friends!

Sandy’s transformation from good girl to bad scandalised and thrilled in equal measure us 14- and 15-year old Catholic schoolgirls. My mum didn’t approve of the film. I remember her telling me that she’d heard there was “a not very nice scene in the back of a car”! I bought the album. I’ve still got it. I know almost every word to every song. I feel I’ve been singing along to the soundtrack for much of my life. I even dragged my husband and some friends – some were willing and some were not so willing – along to the sing-along version as part of my 50th birthday celebrations a few years back.  And yes, we dressed up!

If you follow this blog, you’ll know I’m doing a 100-mile bike ride in July to raise money for a breast cancer research charity. One of the fundraising events I was planning to organise involved a showing of Grease. I’m not sure I’ll do that now. Instead of being a bit of a laugh, it would just be sad.

The fact that breast cancer can come back and kill is the reason I’m raising funds for Breast Cancer Now. One of the charity’s goals is that by 2050 no-one will die of breast cancer. I’m doing the Prudential London-Surrey 100, on Sunday 30th July. It’s a mass cycling event that starts at the Olympic Park in east London, goes out through the Surrey hills and finishes back in central London in front of Buckingham Palace. If you’d like to sponsor me, you can do so here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/maureen-kenny.

My training’s going well and I’m really enjoying it. I’ll carry on living for the moment and as I’m struggling up a hill on my next practice ride I’ll spare a special thought for Sandy Olsson – or rather, Olivia Newton-John – as she gets on with this next challenging phase.

Why I’m cycling 100 miles for Breast Cancer Now

I’ve done it. I’ve signed up to cycle 100 miles on July 30th in aid of the UK breast cancer research charity, Breast Cancer Now.

I’d applied for a place on the “Prudential Ride London-Surrey 100” via the public ballot. I have a good few friends who’ve done this ride in the past and I really fancied giving it a go. It’s been described as “cycling’s version of the London Marathon”. I was adamant, though, that I’d only do it if I got a place in the ballot. I found out earlier this month I didn’t get one.

Therelogo were two reasons I didn’t want to do the ride for charity. First, I’m less than a year out of treatment for breast cancer – my one-year anniversary of finishing my hospital-based treatments is on February 26th (“…3, 2, 1 and relax. Congratulations!”) – and I wouldn’t want people to sponsor me because they felt sorry for me or because they somehow felt obliged to. Second, I felt it was too soon emotionally. I’ve been doing pretty well at “moving on”. The fact that this is my first blog post in two months is evidence of that. The fear that my cancer will come back one day and ultimately finish me off still lurks there in the background, but I’m managing things well at the moment and I’m in a good place on that front. There are hundreds of worthy causes out there but I knew that if I did the ride for charity, I’d have to do it for an organisation that focused on breast cancer research. That, I felt, would plunge me right back into a world that I’m working hard to move on from.

But then the other night I was flicking through the magazine the ride organisers send out with the letter telling you that you haven’t secured a place in the ballot. The magazine contains page after page of ads from charities looking for people to ride for them and raise lots of sponsorship money. I came across an ad for Breast Cancer Now and, as I read it, I realised this isn’t just about me. It’s about the nearly 11,500 women and the several dozen men who die from terminal or secondary breast cancer in the UK every year and their families and friends. It’s about the women with secondary breast cancer from around the world that I’ve met on social media who are trying to change things so they get better treatments and care and who are advocating for more research to be done so that sometime in the not too distant future, secondary breast cancer will no longer be the killer disease it is today. And it’s about the scientists who are working to understand how and why breast cancer spreads, how it can be treated and what needs to be done in order to stop it becoming resistant to treatments.

Secondary breast cancer is when the cancer that began in the breast spreads to other areas of the body and forms a tumour or tumours there. It can develop years after you were successfully treated for primary breast cancer and it happens in an estimated 30% of cases. The vast majority of deaths from breast cancer in the UK are as a result of secondary breast cancer. Some people live with it for many years, but they’re a minority. Statistics are hard to come by but it seems that as many people die within two to three years of being diagnosed with secondary breast cancer as live beyond that.

Given the stage my cancer was at when I was diagnosed, I’m at high risk of developing secondary breast cancer (Recurrence 2: So what are my chances?). At the back of my mind as I was reading through the magazine and mulling things over was something somebody said some time or another, that if you really want to do something, do it today, because tomorrow you might wake up and find you can’t. So rather than wait and apply again next year for a ballot place, I went ahead and this very morning signed up to ride for Breast Cancer Now. I’ve paid my non-refundable forty quid registration fee and I’ve undertaken to raise a minimum of £650 in sponsorship money.

Breast Cancer Now is focusing on four areas: prevention, early detection and diagnosis, treatments and secondary breast cancer. It believes that by 2030, more than 50% of those diagnosed with secondary breast cancer will survive beyond five years. Its overall aim is that by 2050 no-one will die of breast cancer. That seems to me to be a worthwhile goal.

Cycling 100 miles in a day over the route in question won’t be easy. I’m nervous already. I love cycling. I love my bike. It really helped me during treatment (Bike 8 – Car 7. Victory is mine.). However, I’ve hardly been out on it since September last year, when I did a two-day bike ride with a friend to make up for my having had to cancel a long-distance bike ride to Brussels the previous September as by then I’d started chemotherapy (Laying to rest the ghosts of mammograms past). That same friend has a guaranteed place on the Prudential Ride this year, so hopefully we’ll do it together.

I’ve done one mass bike ride before and that was about 60 miles and about thirty years ago. I’m fit; I play lots of tennis and I run 5 or 10k two or three times a week but that’s not the same as long-distance cycling. I’m hopeless at hills (running and cycling) and there are, over the course, “leg-testing climbs”. I’d better start training soon.

Wish me luck. And if you’d like to sponsor me – for whatever reason! – feel free to do so at justgiving.com/maureen-kenny.