Jan Casson shares how walking helped her cope with the effects of her breast cancer treatment.
When her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, Jan took up exercise as a way to fundraise for breast cancer research. She’s since completed the Great North Run several times, as well as the London marathon. But when Jan was diagnosed with breast cancer herself in 2012, she turned to exercise again for a very different purpose – to help her cope both physically and mentally with the effects of her treatment.
My whole life turned upside down
My diagnosis came in July 2012, when I was 53. I was getting dressed when I caught my reflection in the mirror and found I had a dent under my left breast. I went straight to my doctor. It came as no surprise that it was breast cancer – I’m the fourth member of my family to get it after my mum, sister and cousin. But it turned my whole life upside down.
I had a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. Chemotherapy followed and wasn’t straightforward – I lost my hair and suffered with sickness, digestion problems and muscle aches and pains. I felt as if I was being tortured. The first round was so hard.
But the worst was the effect on my legs – I saw them deteriorate in front of my eyes. They were so thin and weak, a right mess. I could pick up the skin with my fingers. I’ve used my legs for many years for fundraising and I worried they wouldn’t be good again. I was more worried about my legs than losing my hair!
Not only did I have my own health to worry about: my sister had been diagnosed with leukaemia and was very poorly. I was so cross with the situation I was in – I was furious. And all of it felt totally out of my control.
My lightbulb moment
I was determined this wasn’t going to get me down – I needed to address my frustrations. Early in my treatment, I took myself off to the local country park, and just cursed and swore.
That was my lightbulb moment – get outside in the fresh air and exercise. I just knew I needed some normality in my life and had to get back into a routine.
In the window between chemotherapy sessions when I wasn’t feeling so bad, I started taking my family and friends out to the country park for little walks. I checked with my oncologist and he thought it was no problem if I felt up to it. I’d just go as far as I could manage, it wasn’t far at all, maybe a mile or two with a little rest. Sometimes we stopped for a scone and a cuppa. One of my friends joked “you’ve forced me to come out and exercise!” which put a smile on my face.
I used this exercise not just to get my legs back, but also to get my head around everything. I was able to chat and put the world to rights with my family and friends and not just bottle it up. I found this so much easier outside in the fresh air, with no distractions. Because of my sister’s illness at the same time, I hadn’t had time to grieve for my own illness. Walking gave me the space to do that. It also helped my lovely family to cope – they knew that if I was outside, that was my therapy and I was doing ok.
It truly was my saviour
Once I’d started my walks, I decided I would do the Moonwalk in London that year. It wasn’t very realistic when my legs were so dreadful, but it was really helpful to have something to focus on.
I finished my treatment in December 2012 and in May 2013 I completed the Moonwalk. I was over the moon my legs were back!
I’m 60 now, and I feel better now than I’ve ever done. Walking played a massive part in my recovery – it truly was my saviour.