Suzanne Stolberg interview: 1 year on from breast cancer surgery
1 Year Survivor: Suzanne Stolberg shares her experiences of dealing with breast cancer and how running was something she learned to love
What has the last 12 months been like for you?
Even though I’ve not actually done that much, looking back they feel quite manic. Mainly because so much has changed for me – you come out of this experience with quite a different perspective on just about every aspect of your life. Since my diagnosis last April I have been frightened, optimistic, exhausted, upset, focused and anxious – sometimes all in the same day! It just depends on where I was with my treatment and also how the drugs made me feel; never underestimate the power that steroids have on your moods!
But you know what, I look back now and although I hate that I’ll never really feel ‘free’ of the disease, in some small way I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to stop just about everything I was doing in my life, have a good stock take and make better decisions now about how I want to be.
You were very active before being diagnosed with cancer. What goals did you have then?
At the beginning of last year I decided that I was finally ready to get rid of the extra weight that I’d ‘acquired’ in recent years. So I went cold turkey on the sugar intake, which meant nearly three weeks of being extremely irritable and craving anything sweet. But then those urges passed and I started to feel so much better, helped by a weight loss of two stone in three months.
This meant that I not only looked better but I ran faster! I’m not a natural runner – my body shape isn’t built for speed – but being lighter meant I could run further and faster, which was a brilliant feeling. So by April I was booked on to a number of 10k races and sprint triathlons and really looking forward to seeing how far I could push myself over the summer.
That’s some determination! What’s different about how you approach training and events now?
Well my head is back in the game more than my body is at the moment! For me, I dealt with my treatments last year by focusing on the fact that their effect on my body would only be temporary. So the hair loss, the weight gain, the sore mouth, the numb fingers and toes, the gut problems I knew would all go at some point. Over the last five months I’ve been pushing my body to get back to the level of fitness I enjoyed before.
It’s easier said than done though – of course, I’m a year older so your muscles don’t repair quite so easily after a hard training session. I’m also on a drug regime that makes my joints ache after being still for even a short period of time.
But I also think that it was my fitness before diagnosis that got me through this year of treatment too. Since last July I’ve been having an injection every three weeks, which is one of these amazing targeted drug therapies and will help me from getting another tumour. I need to have 18 of them in total, but there is a side effect in that they cause damage to the heart muscle. So I have an ECHO heart scan every couple of months to monitor the damage – it’s a balancing act of trying to get as many of the 18 injections as I can without having serious cardiac problems. I’m now 14 injections in and there is no sign of any impact on my heart, which the specialist says is totally down to the fact that I did so much fitness before the treatment.
Now, I enjoy my training much more because I’ve given up competing against others. For me, it’s about my personal best so I do still push myself to get faster or go further but I really don’t care where I am in my age category – I’m just glad to be out there doing it!
That’s fantastic to hear Suzanne 🙂
Support of family and friends has been a huge source of strength to you – as you have to them. What would you like to say to them?
There is no way I would have got through this last year without my amazing team of family and friends. It really is unbelievable how just a short e-mail or text from someone to say they’re thinking about you can really make your day.
Practically there is little they can do (apart from housework, shopping, cooking etc) but knowing that I had people with me every step of the way was humbling. Before I even started my treatments there was a list made of my six chemo treatment dates and who would come with me for each one. I had a friend who always met me for a coffee the day before each of my chemo sessions because it would be the last time I could enjoy it for a week or so!
Honestly every message, every phone call, every e-mail was food for the soul. You cannot underestimate the feeling of knowing that other people are busy living their life but are still thinking of you.
How do you look at life now?
Someone asked me the other day if I thought I was a better person for having gone through the last year and my answer was no, but I think I make better choices now. I’ve always been a planner – I enjoy knowing what I’m doing next week, next month, next year. It took me a long time to get back to that way of thinking but now I make plans knowing that they might have to change.
I have a much deeper appreciation of friendships now and how important people are in my life, that it doesn’t matter if you don’t see people all the time as it doesn’t mean they won’t be ready to step up if needed.
I still get stressed by the small, everyday stuff but I also recognise when it’s happening so much earlier on I stop, ask if it’s really important and if not, I let it go.
And it may be a cliché but you know what, my body is a fabulous thing and I want to look after it for as long as possible. It might disappoint me from time to time but I’m not ready to give up on it yet!
How did it feel to complete the Wilmslow Triathlon 2015, one year after having to withdraw due to surgery?
It was so emotional – I’ll tell you that I was in floods of tears when I crossed the finish line. It was a year after my surgery and at the time I made a personal commitment to be taking part in the 2015 event. There have been plenty of times when I wondered if it had been an unrealistic goal, although when I started the event I just wanted to complete it and wasn’t bothered about my timings.
I didn’t look at my watch the whole way round, but 1km from the run finish I glanced and realised that I was doing incredibly well, which gave me the energy and focus I needed to sprint the last bit. And that’s when it hit me, that this was the end of the beginning of getting my fitness back. No more need to make allowances for the treatments, I was now back in the game.
Emotional yet you couldn’t help but glance at your watch 🙂 What else do you want to accomplish now?
Well as I’ve already said, I really don’t enjoy running that much and usually 10k is my limit for road races as – to be honest – I get bored! But at the start of the year I saw the Man vs Mountain event advertised for September and it just appealed to me so much I signed up on the spot!
It’s a 20-mile run up and down Snowdon, followed by a 100ft abseil and a 25m river swim. Although it’s a long run section it’s off the road and I’m hoping the views will keep me distracted. At the moment I have a training plan, which is going well, and I’m doing it with a friend to keep me on track. I know I won’t run the whole lot – there will be a decent amount of power walking in the mix – but it will be good to challenge myself over a longer event.
Do you have any idea how you’ve inspired those around you with your frank words and determination?
This is the bit I don’t get! I blogged about stuff before my diagnosis but once I faced my treatments it felt vital for me to write abut what I was going through. Not for others, but as a release for me for all the stuff I was going through emotionally. And so my blogs became a public record of what I was going through, although I have to say that I also kept a private diary because there were some thoughts and feelings that were too painful for those close to me to know about at the time.
But then my blogs seemed to gain a following – friends who had other people diagnosed with breast cancer were sharing my words and I now have hundreds of people following me who I’ve never met but send lovely comments about how my honesty has helped them get through their own treatments.
I don’t think that everyone should approach their treatment the same way I did, but I do feel strongly that you have to find your own way of getting through those wilderness weeks and months. Some people might prefer to just shut themselves away, which is perfect if that’s how they cope with the challenge.
I guess you could say that it’s a bit like running – other people can inspire you but ultimately you have to find the race and pace that suits you the best.
How does baking compliment your training and lifestyle?
Oh it’s not the best when training! I love my baking, from cupcakes to good, old-fashioned loaf tin treats. And can I say here that your date flapjack recipe is one of the best I’ve ever made and perfect food for when you’re out on the hills for a few hours.
Why thank you! 🙂
For me, baking is a real pleasure if I can resist eating it all! My children have all now left home so there is no captive audience anymore but I keep their homes in a good supply!
What would you say to others diagnosed with serious or chronic illness or conditions?
Take some time to get your head around it. At first you’ll just focus on all the things you won’t be able to do, but it takes time to understand the adjustments and you will be surprised and what you will be able to do in the future.
Pick your Google searches carefully! It’s pointless saying don’t go on the internet because it’s what we all do. If you search for advice on chemotherapy, for example, you will find far more sites saying that it’s all a conspiracy between big pharma and cancer charities than you will with sensible information about how to deal with the side effects.
In the end, I just used proper sites like MacMillan or UK-based breast cancer charity organisations. And whilst I took a holistic approach to my treatment and was open to complimentary therapies such as Reiki I would not spend time reading about how I would never have got breast cancer if I didn’t have dairy in my diet.
What is your running mantra?
A few years ago a friend introduced me to this from Rocky and it’s stayed with me ever since:
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!”
Suzanne thank you so much for sharing your journey over the past year and more. It’s fantastic to hear how you’re improving and we look forward to seeing more of you at future events!
Suzanne’s blog is a highly recommended read – a very moving a inspiring story of her journey.
If you think sport may help you like it has Suzanne, visit BBC ‘Get Involved’