Strong Women: 'My life expectancy is tragically short, but I'm not bound by it'

What does it mean to be strong?

It’s not all about muscles, even when it comes to sport.

In our series, Strong Women, we celebrate women who show their strength in all kinds of ways, and look at how being active shapes their life.

A study by Sport England found that 75% of women say fear of judgement puts them off being active.

So it is more important than ever that women reclaim their definition of strength and find ways to make fitness part of their lives.

Any woman can find their strength, love their body and be physically fit – regardless of outward appearance.

Rebecca Willcox was dignosed with cancer and told that it was terminal. Fitness, specifically yoga, has been a lifeline for Rebecca – reconnecting her to her body in ways she didn’t know were possible.

I got involved with the incredible charity Breast Cancer Care. I started to explore how I might best help myself in my new, post-cancer world.

I realised that I had to allow myself time and space to get used to my new body – which had been left pretty scarred and beaten as a result of treatment – and accept my revised mindset that we have to cherish every moment we’re on earth.

Having been a pre-cancer fitness nut, I returned to my long-distance running and, in December 2017 I went for a lovely 11-mile run along the Thames on a crisp winter’s day. Halfway round, I developed a terrible back pain. I thought I had pulled a muscle.

My oncology physio had been treating me regularly at this point and so I went straight to her for help. She diagnosed a dislocated rib and a bit of bad luck.

However, when the pain failed to dissipate, she liaised with my oncologist and arranged an MRI just to be certain it wasn’t anything more sinister.. Unfortunately it was.

What happened when the cancer came back?

I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. It had spread from the original site down into my bones, spine and pelvis.

A secondary cancer diagnosis has many names. It is also known as a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, stage 4 cancer, terminal or incurable cancer.

Because it has now travelled beyond the primary site, doctors take the view that it could be anywhere in your body, even in microscopic form. Therefore, they say it can’t be cut out, poisoned or irradiated as with primary cancer, and you will never truly be rid of it.

These are really difficult ideas to come to terms with, and I couldn’t believe that I had only managed about six months before my cancer returned.

Secondary cancer requires an entirely new mindset, and I for one have found it tough.

Unlike primary cancer, where you have a treatment plan that has an end date, secondary cancer treatment involves the daily management of symptoms caused by the cancer. You’re put on a long-term management plan that aims to extend your life where possible.

Like many secondary cancer patients, I have had to accept that from the point of diagnosis onwards, my health is likely to deteriorate bit by bit, necessitating an increasing reliance on painkillers and palliative care.

Of course, miracles do happen and some people can live with secondary cancer for years without much bother, so I continue to live in hope, even though time is ticking on.

I have been given a revised life expectancy figure, which I haven’t shared with many people. It’s tragically short and I don’t consider myself bound by it.

Instead, I’m doing all I can to work with my medical team and ensure that my symptoms are kept to a minimum.

Frustratingly, I find I can be relatively fine one day, and then be crippled by nerve pain the next. What this has taught me, though, is that I mustn’t wait to get sick: if I feel OK right now, I get up and go out.

Every minute that I’m symptom free, I’m able to enjoy life and I do so.

Tell us how yoga has helped you

Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I’d never really contemplated yoga. However, as soon as I tried a session of yoga for people with cancer, run by the charity Trekstock, I was hooked.

Yoga moves are adaptable, so you can challenge yourself physically, or simply enjoy the idea of ‘being present’ in your own body for a while.

On days when I feel good, I’ll concentrate on engaging the muscles and holding a strong posture – vital when the strength in my spine and core is compromised by the cancer in my bones.

If I’m weaker, though, I’m more likely to pause and just concentrate on my breath.

This enables me to feel more connected with my body, so I can detect new symptoms and niggles. I have become quite good at identifying when a new pain is just a normal pull or strain, as opposed to when it feels like there’s an underlying, more insidious cause.

Just recently I developed acute pain in my hip that felt akin to the rib pain that alerted me to the secondary cancer in the first place.

Several scans later and I learn that sadly I am correct – the cancer has spread and intensified yet again in my bones and vital organs. This is bad news, sure, but I’m pleased that my connection to my body, enabled primarily through my yoga practice, helped to prepare me for the diagnosis I knew would be coming.

Yoga also provides a fantastic mental escape.

In these moments, you’re not thinking of your next scan, your previous diagnosis, your upcoming medical or the prescriptions you need to order. No. You’re just thinking of your breath. I’m no scientist but I’m sure that must be good for my overall well-being, blood pressure and so on.

When I’m breathing deeply, I imagine that my inhale is the crisp seashore air of a beautiful beach, while my exhalation is the black smoke of cancer leaving my body.

Clearly this visualisation hasn’t cured my cancer, but it always makes me feel stronger and more positive, and this in turn must surely be better for my overall health.

Yoga is also wonderfully non-judgmental. Nobody has ever tutted at me because I’ve opted for a few minutes of child’s pose to catch my breath.

On a practical level, yoga is manageable, and this is important. I used to take part in fantastically energetic gym classes – circuits, HIIT, Step, spin – but nowadays, I’d struggle to even complete the warm-up. If I attended a class, I imagine I would rapidly become demotivated by how much my physical strength and stamina has deteriorated.

As much as I would like to return to long-distance running, my bones are a bit too crumbly now because of the cancer.

Why is keeping your body fit so important for you?

Time and time again I was told by my medical team that I coped well with the primary cancer treatment regime because of my pre-existing level of fitness.

Some of the chemo in particular was frightfully difficult to face, causing long periods of nausea, and yet I managed to keep up a good fitness regime during the time I was undergoing treatment.

Cancer treatment inevitably involves being pumped full of meds, and I believe it helps your body enormously if you have a system that is flowing and active. It seems to me that if you are generally stronger and fitter, you are more likely to cope well with some of the stronger treatments.

I’m pro-active in my treatment and care, and have attended many medical talks about cancer treatment, recurrence and so on.

I feel that if I expect my medical team to do all they can to keep me well, the least I can do is try and maintain a good blood pressure and heart rate, even if I’m not up to any more marathons for the time being.

What does the term ‘strong woman’ mean to you?

A strong woman is someone who perseveres even through the most challenging of circumstances. Despite side winds, bad luck and misfortune, she maintains her position and ultimately triumphs over adversity.

I think there are elements of being a secondary cancer patient that make me strong.

I live every day in the knowledge that I may not be around much longer, and that the rest of my life may be taken up with treatment, hospital visits and doctors. Getting out of bed and carrying on each day with that burden hanging over my shoulders is quite a challenge, so I suppose in that respect I am strong.

However, I struggle a little to respond when people kindly tell me that I’m so brave for undergoing all the treatment, scans, bad news, etc.

It feels to me that these are just part and parcel of cancer treatment, and I don’t see how I’m brave in just letting a nurse or doctor do their job while I sit or lie down.

How do you maintain your positivity?

My husband, my family, my friends keep me going. I’m so blessed to have a life with them in it, I can’t bear the thought of letting go.

I chose to undergo treatment for my cancer and I choose to keep going, even though the cancer continues to spread aggressively.

Secondary cancer has given me an entirely new perspective on life that I actually feel quite blessed to have.

I’m not worried about the small stuff anymore and I try to let go of negative feelings as much as possible, because they simply don’t help.

I try to metaphorically drown myself in exciting, fun and beautiful things that make life worth living: a nice meal out with a loved one, a walk in the park, a phone call with an old friend, a manicure. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s just anything that reminds me how good life can be.

And it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because, the more niceness I discover in the world, the more convinced I am that it’s easy to find once you start looking.

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