Cycling plans come crashing down

This really was going to be the year of the bike. I’d even bought an additional week’s leave from work so I could fit in all the cycling trips, events and related training that I had planned.

The secondary breast cancer diagnosis I received at the end of April, though, put paid to that. The primary breast cancer I was treated for in 2015/16 has come back and has spread to my bones – most significantly to my spine  – and bone marrow. It’s treatable but not curable.

I know the diagnosis is the key thing here. Everything else, really, is insignificant. However, when I got my diagnosis, I just felt all the ambitious and exciting cycling plans I had for the summer collapse around me. To make matters worse, I had my good bike stolen from outside the hospital where I had the appointment with the consultant on the very day she told me she strongly suspected my cancer had come back. It really felt like someone had it in for me.

Most significantly, I’ve had to pull out of the big charity bike ride I was planning on doing in France in July that consisted of cycling Stages 5-7 of the Tour de France route a week before the real thing. I was due to cycle 345 miles over three consecutive days as part of a big fundraising event known as Le Loop. Instead, I’ll be following the other riders’ progress from my home in south London. The other riders are doing anything from two to all 21 stages of the Tour.

I’m a member of two cycling clubs, one of which is BellaVelo, a fabulous women’s cycling club and community based in south west London. A bunch of us from BellaVelo had signed up to do various stages of Le Loop. It was all very exciting. There was such a buzz around it. Almost every conversation I had with relatives, friends and colleagues involved someone asking how my training was going or asking for details about the event itself. I’m gutted not to be doing it.

I’ve also had to withdraw from the “Highland 500”, a version of the famous 500-mile bike ride round the north coast of Scotland that I was planning to do with my brother Peter the first week in June. This was to have been a major piece of the training for Le Loop. For seven days in a row, I should have been struggling up and racing down one hill after another in the Scottish Highlands. Instead I was at home in Balham getting to grips with the treatment I’d just started and with the symptoms of the cancer itself. 

Among other things, I have anaemia as a result of the cancer being in my bone marrow – it can also be side effect of the treatment I’m on, so that probably hasn’t helped – and I’ve suffered a massive loss of energy. I bought a good second-hand bike to replace the one I had stolen; at the moment even looking at it makes me tired. In fact, the anaemia is at the stage where the consultant oncologist is proposing a blood transfusion.

My fundraising for Le Loop had been going really well. I was already well over my target of £1,200 when I got the news that my cancer had come back and realised there was no way I would be doing this event.

The training was also going well. I was walking or running up the stairs on the London underground. I was doing indoor cycling sessions aimed at improving my pedalling technique, my endurance and my hill-climbing abilities. Quite frankly I’m not sure how much progress I was making on that last front but I was at least trying! I even rode up and down Box Hill in Surrey five times in a row one day.

I had also been on a cycling training camp in Mallorca with BellaVelo in March. That trip was to kickstart my outdoor training for Le Loop… and that’s where my back and right hip starting hurting. I followed it up when I got back to London and that ended up in a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Sadly I only managed one ride with my other club, the Balham Cycling Club.

All was not totally lost on the cycling front following my diagnosis. We agreed I’d start treatment the week beginning 20 May and this meant I could go ahead with the four-day BellaVelo cycling training camp that I was helping organise in the New Forest from 9 – 12 May. I was slow, as I knew I would be, but it was great fun.

It also meant I could go on a four-day tennis camp in Mallorca with three friends, as planned, from 13 – 17 May. I could have started treatment that week, but I think the consultant felt sorry for me. “Do your tennis,” she said, “before I take away your summer.”

Finally, on 19 May, I did the shorter version of the Etape Caledonia, a beautiful closed-road bike ride that starts and finishes in Pitlochry in Scotland.

I had signed up originally to do the full 85-mile route, again with my brother Peter. I was pretty confident I could do the full distance but I knew I didn’t have the strength to do it in the allotted time. There was no way I was going to suffer the ignominy of being swept up by the “broom wagon”, so I did the shorter, 40-mile route instead.

It was a bit of a logistical challenge to get to Pitlochry but I’m glad I made the effort. It was very special – and not just because I’m Scottish! The real reason, of course, was that I knew I was starting treatment in a few days’ time. I didn’t know (I still don’t) when – or even if – I’d next do another ride like that. Peter rode the first 13 miles with me to where the two routes separated then sped off to complete the full 85 miles.

The final cycling-related casualty this summer of my diagnosis is likely to be Ride London, the 100-mile closed road bike ride through London and the Surrey hills that’s taking place this year on 4 August. I got a place in the public ballot this year. This was to be the third and – I’d already decided – final time I’d do it. It was to be the grand finale to an amazing summer of cycling.

You never know. If I get off lightly on the side-effects front, get an energy boost,  manage to get my head in gear and keep cycling during these first few months of treatment, I may try the shorter, 46-mile version of Ride London. At the moment, I have no idea how feasible that might be. 

The pain in my hip disappeared for a while but it’s back now. Regardless of whether it’s related to the cancer or not, that pain is worse than any pain I have in my spine (where there’s definitely cancer) or in my ribs (where there possibly is).

My cancer will obviously affect my physical ability to do things as it progresses. It’s already doing so and we’re just at the start. Specifically, I fear my days of competitive tennis are over. Just like that. The stress on my back and hip is just too much.

As for running, well I’m not so sure on that front yet. I can’t bring myself even to try at the moment.

There’s obviously a weight-bearing thing going on here. My hip doesn’t hurt at all when I’m on the bike and my back only hurts a little. All the way through my treatment for primary breast cancer and beyondthe bike has always been part of the solution. I’m desperately hoping that continues to be the case.

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.