How Sports Helped Me Cope With Cancer During COVID

Exercise means far more to me than just keeping fit. It is my passion, my reason for getting up early in the morning—my raison d’être. I use my fitness as a way to help cope with the good and the bad in my life. It is a tool that is capable of fixing most things. So when my doctor told me I would need to lose my breast due to cancer, it was the tool I turned to. All I could do was hope my fitness and mental strength would let me get through this major surgery like a knife through butter—and then get back to training in no time.

I have always been sporty, but not until my early 40s did I train with any purpose. I discovered that the ideal, most exciting sport for me was actually three-in-one: the triathlon. A combination of swimming, cycling, and running, all done in an allocated time with different distances, racing in beautiful places around the world. The triathlon gave me a new way of life, a new community of like-minded people, and a chance to enjoy something I became incredibly passionate about.

I was too healthy to have cancer happen to me. I didn’t have it in my family, and for sure I was too young. So the question then became, What do I need to do to get ready for this event?

I looked at my situation the same way I would look at any race, preparing to the best of my ability before the big day. First, I would research the course/operation, which helped me know what to expect. Then there was training for the actual performance, which meant being in the best shape possible before the operation whilst trying not to get caught up in other people’s races, which meant not letting other people’s situations and diagnoses affect my own choices. Yep, I made my cancer adventure into a racing metaphor.

However, to make matters worse, all of this was suddenly canceled when COVID forced England to lockdown and quarantine. That’s right, a global pandemic….really???!! How do I prepare for that? Again using my racing strategy, I remembered that most races never go 100% according to plan anyway, so I stayed focused and tried to keep myself within the moment not allowing myself to worry about the future. Easier said than done, I know, but worrying about something that is out of my control has always seemed to be a waste of time and energy for me.

Once the quarantine was lifted and I had my new surgery date, I mentally prepared myself for it all. One of my big concerns was the hospital’s rule of no admittance other than the patient. Because of COVID, family and friends were prohibited from coming into the hospital. It was to be me, myself, and I going through major surgery—alone! It is similar to when the weather is bad for a race. You may be terrified of racing in unfavorable conditions, but you do it anyway. It is out of your control, so you need to just go and get it done.

Nine hours later it was done. As I had chosen reconstruction with my own body tissue at the same time as my mastectomy, I not only had a new breast but also an impressive scar on my abdomen that could have been from a great white shark attack rather than a highly skilled surgeon. I kept on saying to myself as I was lying in intensive care, “just keep looking towards that finish line”. Unfortunately, the finish line was a lot further away than I had hoped.

Controlling what you are able to control physically and mentally is paramount. Not worrying about the things out of your control is essential. When I race, I never worry about the training I didn’t do or how much faster everyone else looks. I focus on the training I have done, and I put myself in a positive mindset from the start. The combination of mental and physical strength is what makes up a good athlete and, as I have learned, a good patient. I’ve also learned one more thing. That butter is going to need an ax.


Photo courtesy of IHadCancer.