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'Swimming gave me the purpose to keep fighting'
Prior to being diagnosed with Stage 3 bowel cancer, I had been training to compete at the European Master’s Championships which was due to be held at the London Aquatics Centre in May 2016.
However, I had been forced to stop training in February 2014 as I was feeling so ill and had barely any energy. All I wanted to do was sleep. After the diagnosis of cancer, I had surgery in the summer of that year. I started to feel much better within a few weeks of the operation but was told I would have to wait six weeks for my wounds to heal before I could get back in the pool and be able to oversee the classes at the swim school I ran. I was determined that having a new ‘friend’ (a stoma I called Flower!) wasn’t going to stop me.
Whilst waiting impatiently for those six weeks, I bought myself some new swimming costumes, goggles, and hats in preparation for getting back in the water. I had lost so much weight my old costumes were just too big. I was excited to finally get back in the pool but only managed a full 15 minutes of swimming before I ran out of steam! Having a colostomy bag made things a little more interesting too – I felt as if I was living dangerously even getting into the pool.
Chemotherapy changed everything
Everything appeared to be progressing well and I made sure I took things steady as I knew it would take a while to return to full fitness. And then I had my first chemotherapy session, which I had a painful reaction to. The infusion had to be slowed right down so I could endure it. At my second visit for chemo, the nurse discussed me having a port-a-cath put in to avoid the same painful reaction, but I refused, telling her I wouldn’t be able to go swimming. The nurse looked horrified and told me I shouldn’t be going swimming or anywhere near a pool, where there would be children who can be prolific bug carriers. My immune system would be weakened by chemotherapy, and they didn’t intend to lose me to the common cold should I catch one! So, I faced a dilemma, as I ran my own swim school, and my job revolves around being at the pool, often teaching children.
Not to be beaten, I decided to use the European Championships as a focus to get through the winter months and treatment, which was due to end in February 2015. I could still ride a bike and keep my fitness up that way. I also decided that I would just aim to take part, rather than attempt to medal (prior to being ill, I had held Masters World Records for my age group and chosen discipline, 200m backstroke). I also decided to try and raise money for Macmillan, who had supported my mum prior to her passing with lung cancer. I asked some friends to help me do this by putting together a relay team who would compete at the Championships and people donated to encourage us to train for the event.
My team-mates were 80’s Olympic medallists, Margie Kelly and June Croft, and my best friend, Maria (Margie’s niece) who gave me support and encouragement throughout my treatment and me subsequently getting back into the pool once I was able to. I also had lots of support from the Master’s swimming community through the latter months of chemotherapy, when I felt unable to face more sessions.
Building up my fitness levels
I finally finished both my chemotherapy and radiotherapy in February 2015 and was then able to start building up my swimming fitness once I felt my energy levels improving. I was also able to get back to the pool for work. Training sessions were ‘interesting’ to say the least, I had to relearn how to dive and tumble with a ‘balloon’ attached to my belly! Over the next year or so I also tried a spot of dragon boat, where you row in a Chinese boat to the beat of a drum, climbed Snowdon, and obtained several new swimming qualifications, including Baby Swimming and Aquapole Fitness Instructor.
In May 2016 I learned the hard way that anxiety and a stoma don’t mix well, especially when wearing a tight racing suit. It wasn’t the best race preparation when I had to dash off from the marshalling area five minutes before the race to change my colostomy bag. Anyway, I completed all my swims and, whilst I didn’t medal, I was really pleased with the results of the races, coming sixth in my age group in two of them, and 4th in another. My girls (we named the team, Lesley’s Ladies) swam out of their skins in our relay race, and we were awarded a bronze medal in our age group. We also managed to raise over £1,500 for Macmillan.
We were all very emotional after the race, things could have been very different had my treatment not worked, but I do believe that focusing on an outcome and not dwelling on things helped me come through the other side and to where I am now. I no longer compete, but I do still train to maintain my own fitness levels, and I still teach too!
Lesley runs her own small swim school in North Wales, teaching all age groups from babies to adults; disability swimming; mermaid swimming; and is an aquatic tutor, training new swimming teachers. She holds a Level 2 aqua fitness qualification. She has five grandchildren, ranging in age from 3 to 20 and a little dog companion who she inherited when her mother passed away.
Her cancer diagnosis was in August 2014 when an operation to remove a blockage in her bowel turned out to be a 9cm stage 3 tumour which had attached itself to her uterus and fallopian tube. She had a stoma which has since been reversed, mainly because of her job.
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