Just weeks after a double mastectomy, a Cape Town woman turned to the healing power of the cold ocean, and now has her sights set on swimming a Robben Island.
Emirates sales manager Anja Meadon’s world was turned upside down earlier this year when a routine, but long overdue mammogram revealed that she had HER2 Stage 1 breast cancer, with Stage 2 aggression.
Anja, who is also managing full menopause, has been waiting for full knee replacement surgery for two years, after her scheduled surgery didn’t happen due to the cancellation of elective surgery during Covid lockdowns.
And to rub salt in the wound, her doctors also warned Anja that she would not be able to swim in cold water – her special place – anymore. Anja had already completed several open-water swims this year, including a couple of 1SOMS (1st Sunday of the month swim) as well as the Round the Island in Langebaan, and a Kraalbaai swim, and was all set for the tough 3.2km Barker Rock challenge in November, and an Escape the Island (Robben Island group swim) soon after that.
But, she says, while she certainly didn’t pick this fight, she refuses to back down.
“Cancer was not meant to defy or defeat me as a person, but to show me how strong I am. My biggest motivation is my 13-year-old son. I wanted him to see his mother fighting with every cell in her body. That giving up is never an option. I wanted to prove to myself that this is a battle won on two sides. The energy I receive from the sea is my contribution to this fight, a fight that was never in my family, that I never expected, but now choose to challenge me and my friends and family.”
Anja opted for mastectomy, rather than the partial lumpectomy, with chemo and radiation afterwards, as that was her quickest way back into the water. A 12-week chemo course followed, and Anja’s oncologist warned her that she would not be able to handle cold water. She also had to be aware of the potential for side effects from her medication.
Anja found herself walking down to Clifton Fourth beach each morning to bathe her feet in the cold water, which also helped her deal with fluctuating body temperatures from menopause, wean her off anti-depressants, and cheer on other swimmers.
Enter the Crazy Clifton Ice Maidens.
Anja had previously started swimming with this group of like-minded women swimmers before her diagnosis. Now the group rallied round Anja.
“The crazy mullet Clifton ice maidens decided that at the end of their swim, they would rinse my hair with buckets of cold sea water, just to remind me of diving into the sea. One day, just short of the four-week mark, I was so tempted that I just ran into the water and that is when we started training again!”
At first, Anja could only swim with one hand, as her chemo port been inserted into her left shoulder, and there was the risk that it could work loose as she swam. “But boer maak n plan, so I used my kick-board for two weeks, letting the port settle before I could use both arms again.”
After her seventh chemo treatment, Anja entered the August 1SOMS with her group.
“I knew from my chemo the week before that my energy levels were low and that I could possibly not complete the mile, but my friends swimming with me kept me going. When I came around the last buoy, I had a complete emotional meltdown, with all these women in and out the water encouraging me to finish. There is no better feeling in the word to have the support of these crazy Clifton ice maidens! While I was swimming, I could hear them shouting, ‘Only 200m more to go. Come on, Anja!’
“I felt like I conquered cancer that day. I walked out the water knowing that I will survive this for my son and my family and friends, but mostly for me.”
Anja says that she never underestimates the therapeutic benefits of cold-water swimming.
“I know that this was cancer was meant show me how strong I am and what wonderful support I receive from so many people. That there is truly healing in our beautiful cold ocean that is free around us!”
1SOMS organiser Warren Fialkov says that Anja attitude creates ripples that spread out through the swimming community and inspire others to strive to achieve.