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"Breast cancer made me choose between swimming and life – but I will swim again"

When writer Laura Price’s cancer came back, she was left with a torturous decision: choose life, or avoid surgery in order to carry on swimming…

As the surgeon explained the procedure to remove my cancerous sternum, it sounded like a no-brainer. He would remove my entire breast bone and replace it with surgical cement, minimising the chance of the cancer ever returning to that spot. There was just one catch: to lower the chance of infection, he would have to remove my latissimus dorsi muscle from my back and place it over my new, synthetic sternum. The muscle would never grow back.

“You’ll barely notice it’s gone,” he said, explaining that the latissimus dorsi isn’t used for much. “Unless, of course, you’re a swimmer.” He said that while I’d still be able to swim post-surgery, I’d now be missing an important muscle on my left side – meaning I might never get back to the speed and power of front crawl I was used to. 

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My heart sank. I have always been a swimmer. Whether doing laps of my local indoor pool or dodging duck poo in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, I’ve barely gone a week of my life without donning my swimwear. It’s the first thing I look for when I book a hotel or move to a new area. My first two questions are always: how long is the pool, and how far is it? I’ve swum solo on rooftops in São Paulo; I’ve dived into the Irish sea; I’m even planning my wedding around a sea swim in Margate. For both my physical and mental health, regular swimming is non-negotiable.

But this wasn’t really a choice. In July 2022, at 39 years old, I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, also known as secondary, or incurable. When cancer spreads beyond the breast to another part of the body, it becomes incurable but treatable, meaning I can take drugs to prolong my life for a certain period, but the cancer will eventually come back.  

I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2012, when I was 29 years old. In the year I turned 30, I had surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and was declared ‘cancer-free’. I spent the next decade doing all the things I wanted to do: I quit my job to go freelance and wrote my first novel, Single Bald Female.

Every year on my ‘cancerversary’, I did something that made me feel alive, whether swimming in some exotic place or just going for a run in my local park. On my nine-year anniversary, I swam in the Thames with my partner Mark, and in June 2022, we swam in the sea in San Sebastian, just days before I received my secondary diagnosis. 

Swimming has long been a form of mental and physical therapy for Laura

Swimming has long been my therapy. As much as I love the effects on my muscular arms and back, it’s just as important for my mental health. The pool is where I hash out ideas for articles and novels, where I work through the problems of the day, or simply switch off while I count lengths. I’d love to say I’m a Wim Hof convert who braves the outdoors all year round, but I’m a fair-weather swimmer, only dipping into open water when it’s warmer. I love the ritual of the swim, followed by a hot shower and a delicious meal.

Throughout my 30s, although I was free of cancer, the effects of treatment took their toll. I took drugs to curb my oestrogen and was plunged into perimenopause from the age of 30. I felt my body slow down and found it harder and harder to do the long-distance running I’d loved in my 20s. But swimming was my saviour, and in the water my body could compete with the very fittest. In late 2017, I completed the two-mile Serpentine Swim in just over an hour. 

In some ways, swimming saved my life. After many healthy years post-cancer, in late 2021, I started to notice pain in my chest and a tender spot above my sternum bone. When I reported my concerns to my hospital, they did ultrasounds of my breasts but didn’t scan my bones. 

Months later, when swimming front crawl, I noticed more pain in my chest: it felt like my bones were crunching together. I could no longer push myself up on the side to get out of the pool, and for the first time in my life I had to use the stairs.

After some persistence, I was sent for an MRI scan, followed by a PET-CT, which eventually confirmed a potato-sized tumour in my sternum. As the growth was large, I would have to take drugs for several months to see if the cancer would shrink enough for surgery to be an option. Fortunately, I responded so well to the tablets and injections that in January this year, I was finally able to have surgery. 

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Nothing could have prepared me for the operation to remove my entire sternum. I was in hospital for 10 days, hooked up to morphine and an epidural. In the first few days, I couldn’t breathe properly, and for the first two months I’m not allowed to lift my arms above my head. I won’t be able to swim until my wounds are fully healed, but I’m itching to get back in the pool, not least because my mental health is suffering.

By late March, I’m hoping to get back in the pool, and I’m working towards my goal of jumping in the sea on the day I get married in May. I feel empowered by something one of the surgeons told me: “The more you can do, the better you will be.” He gave me permission to exercise as much as I can, to push my body hard until I get it back to the place it needs to be. 

The thing is, I know I’ll get back to where I was before. My body and mind have been through so much in the last 10 years, from chemotherapy to surgery to perimenopause, but I’m so proud of the way my body has coped and kept me alive. I have a huge scar across my back and another down my chest, but I don’t care what I look like, as long as the cancer stays away for as long as possible and I can get back in the pool.

Come May, I’ll be jumping into the sea in Margate, taking my first few tentative lengths and no doubt shivering my tits off (pun intended). Just try and stop me. 

Single Bald Female by Laura Price (£8.99, Macmillan), is out now in paperback

Images: Getty/Laura Price

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  • Posted on March 3, 2023