I had an active life... I wouldn't let breast cancer destroy me'
Former international runner and University Boat Race rower Mary Twitchett tells Cambridge Independent why she hosted Cambridge's first 5k Your Way: Move Against Cancer event for those facing the disease.
Exercise has benefits for people living with cancer and beyond cancer including:
■ Reduces cancer fatigue
■ Helps to preserve cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness
■ May reduce chemotherapy side effects
■ Improves psychological wellbeing
■ May reduce risk of cancer recurrence and prolong survival
■ But most importantly it’s social and can be fun!
‘I wanted to survive, I wanted to have a life. I had an active life and I wanted to hang on to that.”
Former international runner Mary Twitchett was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer in May – the most aggressive form.
Five months later, she has hosted Cambridge’s first 5k Your Way: Move Against Cancer, which aims to encourage people with the disease to be more active.
“I’d run the LA marathon in March 2018 and won my age group by 11 minutes with a time of 2hr 42min and 16 seconds,” Mary explains. “To me, it was a mega run and put me on top of the UK listing for my age group, which was 55-60. But, after the event, I didn’t recover well and so I knew something was wrong.”
She continues: “I was running with a friend and she could pick up the pace, but I wasn’t able to even four weeks after the marathon. I didn’t know what was wrong.”
At the time Mary, 58, an advanced nurse practitioner at Arbury Road Surgery, was doing a level four strength and conditioning course and it was during this that she discovered a lump and suspected it was a pulled muscle.
“It was in an unusual place as it wasn’t in my breast, it was at the top of my chest. I thought it was a bit odd, but I just thought I’d pulled a muscle. I thought that’s not really the breast area, so I left it. But the next week it was still there. I thought ‘I don’t like this’ and that’s when I went to the GP.
“And that’s when it all started – a different journey,” Mary says.
Mary was diagnosed on May 8 and on June 2, she had a mastectomy. Over that month her tumour had grown from 5mm to 10mm, which meant she would now have to undergo a full course of chemotherapy.
“If I’d have left it another month, then I would most likely have had to have radiotherapy and who knows what the prognosis would be,” says Mary, who is the oldest person to have competed in the University Boat Race.
A month after the operation, Mary begun chemotherapy on three-weekly cycles, with each session lasting six and a half hours.
“You’re given sheets and sheets of paper about the drugs.
“Every drug, although it is actually healing you, finding your cancer cells and destroying them, has side effects and they have to tell you about the side effects,” she explains.
“But the inner me was saying, ‘I’m a competitor, a fit and well person, and now you’re going to destroy me?’,” she adds.
Mary knew the drugs were necessary but wanted to keep hold of the active life she had always enjoyed.
“Nobody tells you about health in cancer. There is a huge lack of information about maintaining yourself, or information about how the chemotherapy will affect you as a person. It’s the unknown. That first chemotherapy was just so scary.
“I dreaded the side effects. For a runner, it can cause nerve problems to your feet and hands, it can destroy your nails and some people lose their hair. Exercise in cancer isn’t something that’s really discussed.”
And Mary says she did lots of “hopeful things” to minimise the side effects, including wearing an ice cap, putting her hands and feet in ice, and eating frozen fruit.
“The drugs not only destroy all your bad cells but they destroy all your tiny cells, like those in your mouth. You could get a bad mouth, and so I ate frozen blueberries.”
It was the need to continue exercising that Mary found so important during her journey.
There was a dog that still needed walking and a static bike in her home which she could use.
“I thought this would help the drugs through my system and I would drink lots of fluids to flush my kidneys and liver, and that’s why I continued to exercise. When you’re going through these dark days and there are deep, dark days, I could sit on my exercise bike and put my headphones on and I could pretend to read a book. Sometimes I’d read a few pages, sometimes I’d reread the same pages, but it was my time.
“One day I could hardly walk to Fen Ditton but I did and I sat there for about an hour and a half to recover. For some getting out of bed is an achievement, but the message is don’t just stay there.
“Afterwards you feel like you’ve achieved something because so much of it is out of your control. You feel horrible, the toxic cloud just overtakes you. You don’t really know what to do. The drugs are inside your body, giving you a metallic mouth, they’re making you tired, but I got on the bike and I had some control.”
Mary has a prognosis that is deemed to be good but admits she doesn’t know where the end of her journey is. Next year, she is planning to run the Boston Marathon.
The 5k Your Way: Move Against Cancer is run once a month alongside the Coldham’s Common parkrun event. The first event was held on Saturday (October 27) and around a dozen people turned up.
It is the second to be set up in the UK, with the first launched in Nottingham by cancer survivor Gemma Hillier-Moses, who founded the Move Charity, and oncologist and triathlete Lucy Gossage.
“It is so exciting to be the second parkrun to incorporate this initiative. We hope it will go national,” says Mary. “The cancer journey can be pretty grim but if we can get out there and help people get through, it will make such a difference both in physiological symptoms and psychological wellbeing.”
“It’s for all cancer patients,” she says. “You don’t have to run, you can walk, you can have a chat with your friends, but you’re out there and you’re doing it.
“If it takes us an hour to get through, we will do it. If you’re not well enough to walk it, you can come and be a volunteer and stand and cheer people on, which is just as important. You’re getting out and you’re doing something – and something that isn’t disease-related.”
The 5k Your Way is held on the final Saturday of each month with the next scheduled for Saturday, November 24. The group meet at Nuffield Fitness and Wellbeing Centre, where they head for a coffee afterwards, at 8.20am before walking over to the parkrun for 8.40am for a 9am start.
Their T-shirts are kindly sponsored by Panther taxis.
Participants must register in advance at parkrun.org.uk.