Swimming after cancer
Updated: Mar 20
Surround yourself by fantastic people and you can conquer the world and achieve great things. I do believe all the pool2lake swimmers are amazing and you have created an environment where people with their own stories can come for a short while to train but also be part of a happy environment. I believe the water can heal, maybe not cure cancer but it can give you a mood lift, let your brain be free for a short while to find a solution to a problem and let’s not forget the laughter which is contagious.
Receiving the heart sinking emails from two regular pool swimmers saying they are not going to be able to swim for a while due to them finding out they had cancer and have to undergo cancer treatment is awful. Then meeting a new swimmer Annie, who started in the Westminster lodge squad had finished her treatment and was returning to swimming, was just fabulous to have her be part of the team.
I would love to share the journey of the three swimmers, Louise, Deborah and Annie who have finished treatment and are back swimming. You too can start swimming after cancer.
I started swimming as part of Heather’s squad in January 2018, having finally admitted that my self-taught front crawl wasn’t going to suddenly and miraculously get better one day all on its own. I spoke to Heather at Stanborough towards the end of the season in 2017 and taken her card but typically for me did nothing about it. But after a few more open water swims in the Lake District, swallowing too much water, getting out of breath, tiring quickly with a collapsing swim stroke I was beginning to enjoy it less and less. I realised that if I didn’t actually put some time and effort into developing better technique, I was going to stop swimming.
So, swimming lessons went on my list of new year tasks. I hadn’t had a swimming lesson since primary school, I was forty odd years old, a bit ashamed of my swimming stroke, unsure how I was going to respond to being taught and basically nervous as hell. Oh, and the whole being in a swimming costume in a public place thing, don’t even go there!
I wasn’t the slowest or the fastest but it didn’t really matter. It was ok but I dreaded it. I was just too self-conscious and still competitively and unnecessarily trying to keep up with the faster swimmers. Oh, and I really don’t like swimming pools. It’s not that I don’t like other swimmers, but I don’t want you in my lane, or pool if I have to swim indoors! Because of all that I wasn’t really listening to Heather, taking notice of her instruction, it was like an hour of paranoid panic! I lasted two weeks at swim squad, but not because of any of that, because one of my other new year tasks was getting a lump checked out at the doctors.
I seriously never considered it would be anything other than a cyst but I was diagnosed with breast cancer, operated on and underwent a course of radiotherapy and am now on preventative medication. I was lucky, very lucky. Surgery went well, I had no side effects from radiotherapy and I ran and cycled throughout treatment, but swimming wasn’t allowed. And for some reason that annoyed me more than the diagnosis.
As soon as you aren’t able to do something its funny how you miss it out of all proportion. I did all my post operation exercises and was finally allowed back swimming in July 2018. I wasn’t nervous I was just desperate to get back in the water, even the water at Stanborough which is a little bit green at the best of times!
Physically returning to swimming hasn’t been difficult but there are some differences. After surgery and for the foreseeable future I am not allowed to lift more than 5kg, I have always relied on strength over technique, or what I refer to as ‘brute force and ignorance’! But with a weaker upper body I found I was tweaking my shoulders and getting strains. Improving my technique now isn’t just about trying to go faster and further it is about not getting injured. I also have to warm up because scar tissue doesn’t stretch apparently and I was getting a few strains. I know I should have been warming up anyway, but who does really? So, I got back in touch with Heather and joined the Hatfield Leisure centre Monday Swim Squad.
Psychologically the change has been a little bit cliched, but when it comes to swimming it’s been interesting. I don’t care what anyone else is doing in the pool anymore so I listen to what Heather tells me (at least I think I do) and focus on trying to make my body do the right movements. I ask more questions, especially if I haven’t understood something completely. As a result, and because Heather is always so encouraging and enthusiastic its infectious, I really enjoy the sessions in the pool. In open water I can really feel the benefits of the sessions and know what to do and visualise when things start to go a bit awry “imagine swimming through a tunnel, remember the high elbow, feel the catch, crocodile eyes, 1-2- threeeee”! It’s more important to me now than ever to enjoy what I do for the right reasons, for me and open water swimming it’s about remembering to enjoy the feel of the water. Roll on the Derwentwater point to point in May!
In February 2019 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment involved biopsies, surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, all that over 9 months meant swimming was prohibited.
Before that I was only just getting into swimming with the thought of open water swimming which was still a bit terrifying, but having this taken away was frustrating. My first dip in the pool after chemo was on holiday in September. At the beginning I could only manage 1 length of the 50m pool, 2 weeks later I made it to my goal of 10 lengths.
Move on a year, it’s time to get back in the water and train for that open water challenge. It was a slow start, fitness levels are low and each stoke stretches the scar tissue, but the buzz after the session makes it worth it.
It has taken a brush with a life-threatening illness to give me ‘can do/will do’ attitude. I can jump straight into the pool, I will do an open water swim this year. This has all been made easier by the support of my friends and encouragement from Heather, she kept in touch over the year and her enthusiasm it’s infectious. 2020 will be my year.
I’ve always loved water; the sea, rivers, lakes, swimming pools, baths, and spas. So, swimming more confidently in open water after going through breast cancer treatment seemed like a good idea for both my physical and mental health.
Back in 2018, The first step involved a few months of improving my front crawl technique with Heather’s classes (then Amanzi) in St Albans. I discovered I was doing it very inefficiently. I learned bilateral breathing and about body rotation, hand entry, ‘the catch’ (something that still eludes me). Heather also taught us about acclimatising to cold water, (the cold cap which I sported during chemotherapy to stop my hair falling out, turned out to be excellent training for this); ‘sighting´ to ensure you swim from in the most direct way possible rather than zigzagging around a lake and doubling the distance; and dealing with lots of other people churning up the water around you and kicking or punching you in the process. Sounds fun doesn’t it?!
Well luckily my first few outings in the lakes were sedate affairs with small groups of supportive people. Once the cold water found its way into every orifice of my hired wetsuit and I got used to blowing bubbles at all the weed and shoals of fish beneath me…I absolutely loved it and I haven’t looked back.
Immersing yourself in cold water is now prescribed for neurological conditions such as depression and I can see why, it seems to have a sort of reset effect on your mind and body. I now have my own wetsuit for colder days (but when it’s warm I prefer just a swimsuit). I have now completed a mini triathlon with an open water swim and the swim leg of a half Ironman twice as part of a relay team.
My challenge this summer is to do the half Ironman swim in the sea (hopefully in calm conditions), and some ‘wild swimming’. I have tried to up my pool swimming over the winter to increase strength and stamina. Next month I’m doing a 5k pool swimathon for cancer research and in September an outdoor 5k for a swimming disability charity. I’d recommend everyone give swimming, especially outdoors, a shot as it’s a great way to get fit, feel good and meet a great bunch of slightly crazy people.
Annie has also very kindly shared her blog while undergoing treatment.
To everyone out there, yes men as well, please check your boobs, for any changes at all and go and get it checked https://breastcancernow.org/information-support/have-i-got-breast-cancer/signs-symptoms-breast-cancer