Sharon Laws is a national road race cycling champion who competed for Team GB at the Beijing Olympics alongside Nicole Cooke. Now she rides her bike, albeit at a lot slower pace, to take her mind off the next dose of chemotherapy she requires to fight the cancer that has invaded her body. The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter hears just how brutal the treatment is and how determined Laws is to win the toughest race of her life
In the final few months of a fulfilling and successful racing career, cyclist Sharon Laws put her ailing form down to simply “getting old”. She knew she was winding down and was looking forward to retirement, be it leading cycling fitness tours or as a consultant in environmental conservation. But then a biopsy of some swollen lymph nodes in her neck, which she had put down to a persistent cold, rocked her to the very core.
They were diagnosed as secondary cancer tumours. More were found in her pelvis. This was cancer that had spread from a primary tumour in her cervix. In a press release last October, the Beijing Olympian wrote that the cervical cancer was “treatable but not curable”.
And so she packed up her life in Girona, Spain, the professional cyclist’s favourite haunt, and moved back home to Bourton-on-Water to live with her mum in a tiny one-bedroom retirement flat while she underwent six months of chemotherapy.
Now four rounds in, the 42-year-old Kenyan-born cyclist reveals just how brutal the treatment truly is. “It is getting harder as the time goes on and it’s taking me longer to recover from each treatment,” the 2012 national road race champion explained.
“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 appetising 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 also had two treatments delayed as my white blood cell count has been too low. So after this last treatment, I had to give myself a five-day course of injections 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.”
It is as bleak as it sounds. But Laws, drawing on the attributes that made her a supreme athlete, has turned to her bike for comfort. She rides every day, as slowly as she likes, to clear her mind and allow herself to escape the gruelling life of a cancer patient for a few precious moments.
“It is very hard, to go from being a professional cyclist to being a cancer patient. 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.
“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.
“So having treatment which makes you sick when you are feeling well is difficult to accept. It is a real mental challenge and I face it with dread each time. 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. 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.”
In the afternoons she walks, either alone to learn Spanish, or with her mum, who has been a rock of support. Before dinner, she will do some yoga. But the former Garmin-Cervelo and Cervelo Bigla rider now has to avoid public places and public transport to reduce the chance of infection.
“I’m being very cautious with this so I 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 travelling 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.
“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. Friends have come from great distances to see me – including one of my closest friends who came from South Africa, one from the Shetland Islands and Emma Pooley from Switzerland.
“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, 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.
“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 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.”
Laws cannot look too far ahead. Her future is unclear. Statistically, only five per cent of women with stage four cancer live beyond five years, and she admits the odds aren’t great. “I was shocked and still am. To be told you have an incurable disease when you have so many plans and dreams to fulfil is devastating. It’s still hard to get my head round it.
“But 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 behaviour 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.”
Laws’s final round of chemotherapy is in March. While there is little she can do now, she emphasised the importance of getting regular smear tests, no matter how busy you are. Once she has finished the chemo, Laws hopes to find a rural Cotswolds cottage to rent, along with some flexible, part-time work, either in cycling or conservation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.