A Can Too-ers Swim to Recovery: A True Story

by Samantha Guthrie 28 Mar 2018

As I snap on my cap and adjust my orange Can Too swimming costume, I reflect on how I got into this situation of swimming in the first 5km Ocean Swim with the Can Too Foundation. Years ago, the idea of getting trained to do an Ocean Swim appealed for purely selfish reasons - I needed to get fit.

I signed up with the Can Too Foundation, and chose my target distance of 1km - “let’s not aim too high, eh?” I thought. I attended most training sessions and was struck by how passionate the other participants were about Can Too. One had a friend who was battling cancer, another had lost their mum to the hideous disease and these guys were totally into their fundraising - I was not quite as dedicated.

Race day dawned. I was confident in my swimming ability, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the flurry of bodies jostling mine as I jumped in and swam out into the largish swell from Shelly beach. I have a loud voice in my head. Maybe you do too? I call mine Janet.

Janet started to tell me that I couldn’t do it and even planned ways for me to get out of the water over the rocks, so that no one would notice my failure.

Eventually, my default headspace of ‘lazy, yet competitive’ kicked in, so I put my head back in the water. I swam the race, and finished it by running up the beach to the shouts of “Go Can Too!” and basked in the glory of finishing a personal challenge. But Janet was also at this finish line. “Are you sure that was the best you could do?” she whispered in my head.

The Can Too Ocean Swim training got me swimming longer and longer swims - until I got signed up for a different challenge. Cancer.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2015 and went straight on to the cancer treatment conveyor belt. This consisted of; underarm lymph node removal, 6 months of hair-destroying chemotherapy, 5 weeks of burn-inducing radiation, and a marathon 15-hour surgery where my cancerous mammaries were removed, and new ones were fashioned out of my own tissue and abdominal muscles. I came out the other side with a very different body. A body that didn’t work the way it used to, ravaged by the effects of cancer and its treatment. I couldn’t swim with my head out of the water due to my dodgy core muscles, and my stroke had changed because my dominant arm didn’t function as it used to, swollen with lymph fluid. I was tired from the drugs keeping the cancer at bay and the treatments left me with aching joints and osteoporosis.

Eventually, some of those passionate people I met through previous Can Too Ocean Swim programs pestered me to come back. They encouraged me join them at squad training and do another Can Too Ocean Swim, or two. Then they conned me into signing up to the inaugural 5km Can Too Ocean Swim program. 

This time I feel different. I am swimming to achieve something big in this battered body of mine. I dive into the usual maelstrom of water, sand, and bubbles from the swimmers before me. I still feel anxious, but that strong desire to turn around and get out of this ridiculous situation isn’t present yet. I roll onto my back and do a few strokes of backstroke to adjust my goggles. Then its head down and straight to the first buoy. I turn and stroke-stroke-stoke-breathe-stroke-stroke-

Ah, hello Janet! Here you are again, taking advantage of the fact that I am a bit disoriented as I am swimming straight towards the rising sun, making sighting impossible.

Well, guess what, Janet? I’ve got this! My body may not be the same, but it beat cancer and it can beat you. I have trained well, and I am ready. And best of all, I even have my new Can Too swimming buddy swimming right next to me, so you are not going to get the better of me today.

So I swim. 

And while I swim, I daydream, I sing, I marvel at the wonderful underwater world gliding underneath me. I remember my coach John’s various pieces of advice, and try to apply them. I relish the fact that my old body can be trained to swim again and I actually enjoy myself!

Why don’t you try a Can Too program?  You don’t have to be fit, you don’t have to be fast, and you certainly don’t have to be brave - I wasn’t! The sense of achievement in completing a Can Too Swim is truly amazing.  And if it helps create a world where no one needs to get on the cancer conveyor belt like I did, then that’s all the better, don’t you think?

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