Sunday, 9 July 2017

What I learned about cancer while doing an Ironman

I started training for Ironman UK pretty much as soon as I found out my friend Helen had cancer. The two are linked - stupidly, because it was a knee jerk emotional reaction in the helplessness of her news, I thought doing something heroic and challenging might lessen her burden. I felt like I should carpe diem in her place. I don't know what or why really, but I am sure someone who knows psychology could tell me.

Anyway, as I swam-biked-ran, she undertook her own journey which is documented on her blog.

Here are some things I learned about cancer during her journey and mine. (Disclaimer: This isn't in any way supposed to be a comparison of cancer versus triathlon. But I find we are largely all very bad at talking about life, death, mortality, and the love of friendship, so I figured I would use the framework of triathlon to explore this.)

The swim: cold chemo
So I learned lots of things I didn't know. Little practical things on everything from hairloss to how chemo makes bits of you feel. I saw that Helen has to wear these cold mitts on her hands and feet (like oven gloves with ice packs inside) for some of her chemo sessions. It was awful seeing the discomfort she was in wearing them. I'd like to say this made me braver on my cold water swim that April but it didn't. I flinched, squealed and withdrew my hands. I don't know how she kept them in there but then she has done a New Year's Day swim in the Quays so she is definitely of harder stuff.

Brave and inspirational:
This leads me onto being brave and inspirational. I get lots of lovely messages from friends saying I am inspirational. I figure this is because deep down they would like to try a triathlon, tackle an ironman or simply move out of their comfort zone. I get that. Helen is often called Brave and Inspirational. We, her cynical friends, had to confront her about this. Is she brave? She's got cancer. This means she has to be cut up, poked at, scanned, injected and so on. She doesn't really get much say in it. We should be careful in that saying someone with cancer is brave, we deny them the space to be afraid. If Helen went into every medical appointment crying and fretting she is no less a person and I know we all know that, but maybe let's not give people with cancer another cross to bear?

The bike: it will be lonely and you will cry
I can only imagine there are times when Helen would cry (like I do at 85 miles) or shout (like we both do at headwinds). Sometimes you cry when you don't know why, and I know Helen has had those days too. I wish I was there for her all those times she may have cried, (mind you, if it's anything like me on the bike, perhaps it's best left alone as I may cry more?!) Sometimes you need to howl at the wind and it doesn't matter who hears you. I hope Helen gets some wind howling done.

The run: the move into the unknown. 
So they say that the marathon after the bike is like no other run you've done. This makes sense as your legs don't feel your own after 112 miles. For Helen, the future is an unknown, and I hear her frustration or hesitation on making plans because she doesn't know what her treatment schedule might be. But sometimes I hear her silence because I feel like she's thinking "I don't know where I will be." How do you treat someone as the same old same old with that elephant always being in the room. Our mutual friend Kat expressed this on Helen's first birthday with cancer.

You can run and ride with cancer, on chemo. 
This follows on from being brave and inspirational. Helen always ran, and always rode. She had parkrun double figures before her diagnosis. She was an ace cyclist for many moons. That she did this when she had cancer was because she wants to be who she has always been. I feel bad about this because when she ran the Great Manchester Run, we milked the PR for all it was worth, obviously for Pegasus RDA. But she was just being Helen and I am sorry we had to make it so much about cancer. But you got some awesome donations! For this reason, I can understand why she was so frustrated cycling to Edinburgh. She wasn't some inspiring invalid - she is Helen and she wanted to cycle like Helen.

No one can understand what you're going through
I say the above like I am reading Helen's mind at times. Of course I can't. Even if I lived and breathed her every moment, you only know what is inside someone's head when they have cancer if you can crawl inside their head. I don't think we have an app for that yet. In the way that many of my friends don't understand Ironman: why are you crying, you paid for this; you'll make the cut off; you'll smash it; can't you have one night off; why do you go to bed so early; but you can't train all the time? I can never understand what she is going through. And in the same way my friends try and say the right things to my addled, exhausted, hangry soul, I try and say the right things to Helen and indeed my other friends (for there are too many) who have cancer. I have foot in mouth syndrome so bad that someone should call Defra. Let the forgiveness flow as we all come from good places.

It doesn't make any difference:
The biggest lesson I have had to learn is the hardest. It doesn't make any difference, you know. If I have a bad day on the bike or set a PB at Ironman. If I don't make the cut off, if I win the whole freaking event, it doesn't change her diagnosis. It doesn't ease her suffering one bit. It doesn't give her more days or more vitality. It doesn't make us understand each other any more than without. So it's official, there's no cure for cancer. And my heart breaks for it.

Find out more about how I will be fundraising to make this event useful to Helen.

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