I felt nervous as I approached our meeting point, the road bridge crossing into Pembroke Dock, high above the river Cleddau. We walked towards each other, small figures coming far from either end of the mile long bridge, growing closer until we embraced, wind blowing hair into our faces.
There was small talk until we reached the pub and could embark on the real thing – the exchange of cancer stories. Gary, her partner, smiled quietly, familiar with this relaying of history. We shared our diagnoses; holding up fists to describe the size of tumours, describing the unfolding, the progression of a cancer diagnosis, the details of the gradual discovery that all was not well, in fact, something was truly terrible. The ovary that burst in the body before the surgeon touched it. The mystery fluid that filled lungs, disappearing as the doctor stood poised with exploratory needle. Naked, hurt bodies, exposed and quivering. Each nugget of detail assumes mighty importance in the traumatised teller; we knew how it is when your mortality is in question and all you can do is wait, small scraps of information giving definition, giving hope.
We shared the before and after of cancer, of finding your way in a new and uncertain world, post upheaval, everything has changed, newly unreliable and you must navigate your way in this new landscape, return to yourself again. She understood the upheaval of cancer, the loss of safety, of a known world where your body works as expected, as it should.
We shared our shock at diagnosis, our ignorance of the symptoms and our common desire to take action. Action as healing, action as strength, action to seek to change things, to make other women more aware, more protected. To make the experience of others better than our own, to give women the power we didn’t have back then, before everything collapsed – knowledge of their own bodies.
It was a short meeting, they had to get back home after a short holiday and I walked on, towards the house where I could stay that night. Hugs outside the pub, a quick photo and they were gone. I felt a bit stunned when I left Sarah, reeling from the quick dip into another’s cancer story, and later in the evening I realised how much I’ve come away from that world – the chaos of medical treatment.
It’s three years later and I trust my body again; this time to carry me for miles every day and not collapse. I’ve walked back to normality over thousands of miles, nights of camping, days of sunlight, of soft grass, of beautiful views and contemplative solitude. I’ve walked my way to health; my body is strong, solid with muscle, resilient, tough. My body is capable.
The challenge I’ve set myself is so big it’s eclipsed cancer, it takes such total focus to walk 3500 miles, such concerted effort that I’ve burnt the fear of illness out of myself. I’ve walked 2700 miles; I’m strong and healthy; cancer is behind me. I may be talking about ovarian cancer, handing out symptoms cards, raising money for two cancer charities but this is all for others. My own cancer story is almost finished; I’ve come through to the other side. Two more years of check ups before I get the all clear but I already feel free.