Last October, Sharon Laws announced she had been diagnosed with “treatable but not curable” cancer. A biopsy of some swollen lymph nodes in her neck, which she had put down to a persistent cold were secondary cancer tumours. More were found in her pelvis. This was cancer, that had cruelly spread from a primary tumour in her cervix. Now, she reveals the full extent of her treatment and its impact.
Sharon, you’ve had four rounds of chemotherapy now – how is it?
It is getting harder as the time goes on and it’s taking me longer to recover from each treatment. After the fourth one I vomited twice during the night and spent two days in bed the following week. I feel nauseous for about 10 days after the treatment, despite medication, which is really unpleasant. I constantly have blood in my nose as the treatment affects the mucosal cells, this drains back into my throat so I have an awful taste of blood much of the time. It is really hard to find anything appetizing to eat during those initial 10 days as the chemotherapy affects your appetite and taste. For someone who loves food so much this is a real challenge.
I’ve had three treatments delayed as my white blood cell count has been too low, so after this last treatment, I had to give myself a 5 day course of an injection with a substance called Filgrastim. This also has side effects – the main one being bone pain from the bone marrow as the drug makes it produce more white blood cells.
How did you feel when you were first diagnosed, and how do you feel now, some months on?
I was shocked and still am. To be told you have an incurable disease when you have so many plans and dreams to fulfill is devastating. Statistically 5% of women survive for 5 or more years with Stage 4 cervical cancer. These aren’t great odds. It’s still hard to get my head round.
How hard mentally is it to go from a pro cyclist to a cancer patient?
Very hard – it is one extreme to another. I was used to feeling full of energy, fit and healthy and now I have to accept that I can’t do what I used to able to. I knew, to an extent, this was going to happen when I retired but I thought it would be a gradual process. With the impacts of a number of operations and the chemotherapy it has, however, been immediate. Perhaps one of the hardest aspects was that I didn’t feel particularly sick before the diagnosis. I knew I wasn’t riding that well but I didn’t realise it was because I was seriously ill. I thought I was just getting old. So to have treatment (which makes you sick) when you feeling well, is difficult to accept. By the third week after treatment I’m beginning to feel more normal again so having to go for chemotherapy, which is going to make me sick again, is a real mental challenge and I face it with dread each time.
What is a typical day like?
I try to keep in a routine but it has to be quite flexible according to how I am feeling in relation to the chemotherapy cycle. I don’t use an alarm to try to maximize sleep. I still try to ride each morning – the distance will vary according to whether it is the first 10 days after the chemotherapy when I have to do a lot less. I just ride really slowly to get fresh air, clear my head, enjoy the Cotswolds and keep an eye out for wildlife. In the afternoons I try to go for a walk either alone to learn Spanish or with my Mum. I do a short yoga session before dinner. I’ve been really lucky with visitors and lots of messages so that also keeps me busy. It’s a pretty simple day. I have to avoid busy public places and public transport to reduce my chance of infection. I’m being very cautious with this so don’t go shopping or do anything social – basically I more or less stay at home, ride or walk. Having spent the last 15 years or so constantly on the go and traveling for work or cycling it is a huge change for me just to be in one place, not be rushing around packing and unpacking and to sleep in the same bed.
What have you learnt about yourself, your friends and family, those around you?
I’ve been overwhelmed by the support, messages, presents and visitors I have had. It has made me appreciate my friends and family so much. Having lived overseas for much of my working career it hasn’t always been easy to see people or remain in close contact. I am so grateful to all of the people who are helping me through this difficult time. I’ve heard from a lot of people I had lost contact with and friends have come from great distances to see me – including one of my closest friends who came from South Africa and one from the Shetland Islands and Emma Pooley from Switzerland. I guess this aspect has at least been a silver lining.
How can we help to raise awareness about your condition?
It would be good to raise awareness about the need to regularly attend smear tests no matter how busy you are.
How do you keep your spirits up? Is it hard to stay positive?
I try to stay as positive as possible. I haven’t conformed to any statistics to date so I’m hoping that, in this situation, I can also be an outlier. Cancer behavior is notoriously difficult to predict. The uncertainty of what the future holds and how long that future might be, is hard to deal with. I have to take each day as it comes because when I think too much about the future I tend to get sad and less positive.
What support have your received so far – what does that mean to you?
I’ve received a lot of support from friends and family. I have two friends who have been through breast cancer and their advice and help has been invaluable. Lots of other people have helped in a variety of ways, for example, from helping me pack up my flat in Girona, storing my furniture and other items, helping me with admin, regularly contacting me to see how I am doing and visiting. I will never forget those who have reached out to help and support me. I guess I have found out who my real friends are.
You are still cycling – how is that helping you both mentally and physically?
I am still cycling, all be it very slowly. I think staying as physically healthy as possible during the chemotherapy is important. Studies have also shown that exercise can help reduce fatigue which chemotherapy treatment is known to cause. Mentally it is also important for me to clear my head and help me remain positive. When I am riding my bike I can try to forget what is happening to me and pretend I’m fine and just going for a nice easy bike ride.
You are living with your mum – how is she helping you, and dealing with your diagnosis?
I’m so grateful to my Mum for all her support. She has turned her life upside down to help me. She lives is a small retirement flat so it is a bit of squeeze for the both of us. She is doing all the household chores which means I can just concentrate on keeping healthy and positive. I do get tired but not having to clean, do my washing and shopping is a huge help. She also cheers me up if I’m feeling a little low. Financially I could also not afford to live alone in the UK. She is obviously just as devastated as I am with the diagnosis, particularly as it came totally out of the blue. My Dad died when I was six and I am an only child so we are very close. I have spent so much time working overseas, both as a cyclist and in my previous career, that another silver lining is being able to spend time together now.
In Cycling News you mentioned we could help by finding a cottage, or some part-time, flexible work. How is that going? Is there more that can be done? What sort of work would you like?
It was a bit tongue in cheek when I said about finding a cottage and work. Ultimately it is what I will need but it wasn’t necessarily something I was expecting to be found for me. Once I finish the chemotherapy and have recovered a little I would like to find a small place to live in the Cotswold’s so my Mum can have her flat back. I keep cycling past farms with small cottages attached and I’m sure there is an empty one somewhere that I could rent for a reasonable price!
Work wise I am a bit limited at the moment as for 10 days after the chemotherapy I feel pretty rubbish. That only leaves 10 days of feeling well enough to do something. Once the chemotherapy has finished I will need to look for work and I am open to most things whether cycle related or something completely different. My background is in conservation work and I would like to do some consultancy but it is very difficult to find work as it’s such a competitive market. I had wanted to be involved as a guide in cycle tours but I’m not sure how realistic this will be from a fitness point of view.