Head Strong: From Cancer to Cold Water
Southern Suburbs working mum Diane Murray, who swam her first Robben Island a couple of weeks ago, refused to let go of her goals, despite a remarkable journey through knee surgery, a double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, breast reconstruction, and a divorce.
“I had no history of breast cancer in my family. In fact, during breast cancer month, I would be that person who would buy the bandana at Pick’nPay and think, “Thank goodness, that would never be me”. All that changed in September 2018 when I discovered a very large lump under my arm.”
This was the start of Diane’s incredible journey. An ultrasound revealed that a 3cm by 4cm tumour had engulfed a lymph gland, and two days later Diane (57) underwent an excision biopsy. She was still reeling from the death the previous year by pulmonary embolism of a close colleague with whom she had shared an office for 11 years, as well as the death of her father, her rock, the man who had introduced her to a love of the ocean.
“I was convinced that all would be well. After all, my tumour marker blood tests were negative, my CT scan was fine. Yet the following week I was told that I had a malignant secondary tumour in my lymph. I’d wake up every morning thinking I had had a bad dream, but it was a very harsh reality.”
In October 2018, Diane, who is the HR manager at Bishops College, had a double mastectomy, with 11 lymph nodes removed, followed by six months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation. “I bought a beautiful blonde wig. I had hated watching and feeling my hair gradually falling out, so it was a relief to have it gone. I hated my wig. It made me feel hot and weird. I felt far more comfortable wearing the T-shirt “designer doeks” that my mother sewed for me.”
Diane, who says she had always been a very fit and sporty person, also had to endure a total of 39 injections to artificially stimulate her bone marrow to generate more white blood cells. “I wasn’t brave enough to inject myself, so the poor nursing sisters at work would do it for me. I often thought the injections made me feel worse than the chemo.”
This harrowing regime made Diane feel absolutely dreadful, she says. “Chemo was usually on a Friday. The steroids kept me going for the first few days afterwards and then they would wear off. The bone ache from the injections would kick in and then I would have weepy Wednesdays and Thursdays, and then on Friday it would all start again. It was relentless and the light at the end of the tunnel was often not visible to me.”
Diane also underwent full breast reconstruction, and knee reconstruction.
“I never knew I could cry so much. A friend joked that I could start a desalination plant. Cancer is so horrible. It takes control of your body. It feels like your body is betraying you, if your head is not in the right place.”
But there was light. One day Diane was sitting with her hands and feet in ice-water basins to prevent nerve damage, when a sudden thought struck her – swimming in the Atlantic ocean couldn’t be worse than this.
“Gradually I started swimming again. I had no upper-body strength. In fact, because the pool does not have steps, my colleagues put a stepladder at the side of the pool for me to use early in the mornings, so I could get out the pool. One morning I forgot to put the ladder in the pool and I realised how important a strong head was. I simply said, “You have two choices – wait until someone comes and finds you in the pool or get out by yourself.” I got out.”
In October 2019, Diane attended a conference where Ryan Stramrood spoke about his Arctic mile swim. Although she was uncomfortable being in deep water, Diane immediately decided she was going to do the Clifton Mile.
“Within weeks I was swimming far out into the ocean and loving it. The day I swam my mile was so special. Both my daughters were there to support me with my new group of ‘merfriends’. I was also happy to be able to take part in the Bosom Buddy topless swim and to share my story with a group of women to raise awareness for breast cancer. My pink ‘Simply the Breast’ bathing cap is my favourite swimming accessory.”
Diane says open water swimming started changing her life. She joined two WhatsApp swim groups and became a regular at the Sunday Hot Chocolate group in Camps Bay.
“Even although swimming is an individual sport and many who take part are seasoned swimmers, I have been touched by everyone’s kindness. There is always someone looking out for me in the water, and I never swim alone.”
Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA) chairwoman Kerry Kopke, who founded Bosom Buddies in 2017 to honour friends and family members who had suffered breast cancer, said Diane was right – cold water is nothing after cancer. “Diane is an example to all of us of determination, strength and resilience, all of which is needed to do long distance, open-water swimming in the cold Atlantic.”
The swim bug had bitten! In August 2020, Diane signed up for a six-week open water swimming course with a Glencairn experienced triathlete, Scott Tait. She says she asked him if he could turn from a Volksie into a VW Polo! Scott soon pointed her towards the Langebaan Express, a 7km, tidal-assisted swim, run by Big Bay Events director Derrick Frazer.
“Since I am a morning person, I posted on the swimming group to see if I had any takers for 5.45am swims at Clifton. I am so grateful for my new hardcore friend, Marelé, who showed up and swam with me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the following four weeks. I just remember thinking, “If you can beat cancer, you can do this.”
Diane swam Robben Island three weeks ago, with Marelé in a time of 3hr 14. Liezel swam on the same day, finishing in 2hrs 39. Water temperature was 15 degrees. “My head was strong, but my stomach was doing flick-flacks. The only thing that would make me get in the boat was if both shoulders seized up. My body had adjusted to the cold water over the months and had grown stronger and fitter.”
Diane got her head down, and before she knew it, there was the mainland! “I then saw my friends and family on the beach with balloons- shouting and clapping. Scott was also there- so very proud of me. It was ironic that the many of the folk were there 22 months ago when I rang the bell in the Vincent Pallotti chemo ward when I had my last chemo treatment. In many ways the chemo treatment and my training for RI were similar- daunting on one level, but doable when one systematically approached the challenge bit by bit.”
Diane says that in the 18months that she has been doing open-water swimming, she has been immersed in a very special community. “I found a resilience I never knew I had and a new appreciation of my battle-scarred body. I also realised that being vulnerable is not a weakness, how important it is to laugh, to embrace life, to take on challenges, and never to lose hope.”