What have I done?
I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’m fit—fitter than most people. I just didn’t get it. They had to have it wrong.
I’m 31; how could it have gone undetected for six years?
How did the doctors miss it? How could I be I hospitalised in Europe, not only cutting my season short but delaying my flight home, only to be discharged after two weeks on IV antibiotics?
No further testing was done. Why would they have needed too? I was fit, healthy and young.
Not once in six years was the word ever mentioned.
How did they get it so wrong?
None of them—not one person in six years—picked it up. It’s not like I didn’t go to doctors. It’s not like I didn’t know something was wrong, but there was always another explanation, because why wouldn’t there be?
I’m 31; there was always another explanation.
How have I just been told I have cancer?
Stage four incurable bowel cancer.
Is that even a thing?
How Did We Get Here?
I started cycling at 17. I was taken in by a family who were all cyclists and who taught me to ride my first road bike. After the initial broken fingers (from my first go at riding with cleats), I was hooked.
At 18 I got a contract with Team CMAX, a professional women’s Italian cycling team.
It was a dream come true, for a Kiwi that wasn’t even known in New Zealand cycling to be picked up like that. I was with the team for four seasons.
At that point I decided I needed to do something “proper” with my life, so I went to university and gained a diploma . . . yeah, that didn’t get me far! During this time I got into running, but I missed my bike. I missed the rush you get from a fast descent, to be able to take yourself almost anywhere, escaping life for a while and just enjoying the freedom a bike brings to you.
So I picked it back up and got back on. I learnt to swim, and triathlon was born.
For the last four years I’ve been training and racing in Europe while based in the UK.
I was a sun chaser and a dream catcher. I would go where the racing was and come home at the end of the season to a nice warm New Zealand summer.
Last year was going to be different. I had managed to secure a five-year visa, so was only coming home for five weeks to sort some things before heading back for my first-ever cold and white UK Christmas, along with a January/February training camp in Spain.
I thought it was a flu-type fever. No, I didn’t feel well. I had aches and pains and felt cold but yet hot; I was running a temperature and I had a sore tummy. But the stomach thing . . . well, I’ve had that before. It usually would subside in a couple of days, and given the number of doctors I’d seen about it in the past who all found nothing, I just felt perhaps I was a drama queen making it all up in my head.
Suffice it to say I waited five whole days, until I was in so much pain I went to A&E on a Sunday in the UK. It was an appendix mass. They didn’t want to operate as it was too inflamed; I was put on IV antibiotics for a week, maybe more, depending on how it was settling down.
I would miss my flight home, but that was easy enough to get, changed.
Little did I know this was the start of my hospital life.
I was discharged after two weeks, no follow-up scans, nothing. I was told if I had a problem to go see my GP and they would be able to sort and manage it.
I went on my merry way and flew home the week after with all my doctors’ notes. Five weeks of summer clothes packed, and ready to sort my life out so I could head back to Europe.
About two weeks after getting home, I felt that same pain in my stomach. It would be fine, obviously, why wouldn’t it be?
But a friend told me I didn’t look well, and recommended I get checked out with my GP. The doctor’s office had an appointment that would let me beat rush hour traffic, so I thought, well what’s the harm: it’s nothing anyway, so I’ll just go along and see what she has to say.
Because it was late on a Friday, the doctor recommended I go home to pack an overnight bag and head into Auckland City Hospital emergency department.
Just needed to check it wasn’t the appendix.
Next thing I knew I was admitted that night and sent for emergency surgery on the Sunday morning; my appendix mass had ruptured and left a mess. I lost 30 cm of colon but was fairly lucky.
Or so it seemed, at that point anyway.
Following the appendix mass removal, I spent two weeks at the hospital in Auckland. During that time an infection developed in my kidneys; that had to be drained, but no one could really understand why I wasn’t getting better or was still in so much pain.
After being discharged, I wasn’t allowed to exercise—let alone train—for six weeks. SIX WEEKS?! That felt like a lifetime at that stage. Two weeks post-hospital I was called for a surgeon’s appointment. Obviously just a follow-up, right?
I hadn’t seen my surgeon since the operation, so it only made sense.
I sat in the waiting room for 45 minutes before I was taken in, and then my whole world was brutally ripped from under me.
A lot of signs and symptoms had been there for years. Fatigue and anemia? Just a female professional athlete, I was told. Stomach problems? Just food intolerances.
I was told that to improve the quality and quantity of life I would need to undergo chemotherapy.
My life was, all of a sudden, not my life anymore: instead of bikes and running, my days were filled with doctors and appointments.
I got a portacath put in within two weeks and started chemotherapy in four. It was a whirlwind.
No training session you have ever will prepare you for chemo: the side effects were so horrific that after round one they had to delay round two and reduce the dose. It was killing everything inside me, that’s for sure—including my soul.
Yet I keep fighting.
I fight with doctors and specialists all the time. Yes, I have cancer and am a chemo patient, but I still want to ride my bike for two hours and no, I don’t care if it hurts.
Training and racing have always been my outlet, my coping mechanism, my escape, my sanctuary, my meditation, my freedom. I’m not giving that up for anyone or anything.
It has taken over my life, but cancer would not take away my bike,—my haven—from me.
And so I ride my bike, I run, I go to the gym and now I’m learning to kayak. I shouldn’t be able to get out of bed or off the couch, let alone a walk around the block, but who makes these rules?
Yeah, I’m tired; yeah, cancer sucks (and chemo is even worse), but not riding my bike is my true nightmare. They can take my world and life from under me, but they can’t take my bike, my drive or my desire.
Although that drive and desire has shifted somewhat, it is still there. Now, I want to help people, to motivate and inspire others. I want to show the world that no matter what happens, who you are, or what you’re going through, you can still do it. Never give up, never give in, and keep fighting.
When you get diagnosed with cancer and are going through chemotherapy, a bucket list is a must.
My bucket list consists of my major event for the season to come: the Kathmandu Coast to Coast. I’ve also decided to do the Auckland Half Marathon and Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge one last time. Because life is too short to wait until tomorrow: Take up the challenge today.
I could sit around and feel sorry for myself, and yes, I have moments of thinking “why me, why is life so unfair,” but I also choose to keep going, to keep fighting, to still have aims, goals and dreams.
If your goals don’t scare you . . . are they big enough?
I can’t help myself much, but through all of this I want to be able to help someone, inspire one person, motivate an individual. If I can do that, maybe all of this will be worth it.
Life is tough but you are tougher. Never give up, never give in, and keep fighting.
Words & Images: Brittnea Chambers & Cameron Mackenzie
Originally printed in Volume 6 of NZ Cycling Journal. Subscribe today.