Diane Murray – From cancer to cold water

Diane Murray shares how she found the magic in the mess when sitting with her hands and feet in ice cubes during chemotherapy and decided she would take up cold water swimming.


Diane Murray (57) lives in Rondebosch, Cape Town. She is divorced and has two adult daughters. 

In September 2018, I discovered a large lump under my arm. I had a mammogram and ultrasound which showed a 3 x 4cm tumour that had engulfed a lymph gland. Two days later, an excision biopsy was done and then I waited.  

The following week I was told that I had a malignant secondary tumour in my lymph. A PET and MRI scan followed, and pre-cancer cells were found in my left breast. Triple negative breast cancer was the final diagnosis.

Treatment

The start of October was also the start of my treatment; a double mastectomy and 11 lymph nodes removed. Due to the aggressive nature of triple negative breast cancer, six months of chemotherapy: red devil (doxorubicin) followed by paclitaxel, and five weeks of radiation were prescribed.

My white blood cells plummeted after every chemotherapy session. Countless injections were administered to artificially stimulate my bone marrow to generate more white blood cells. I hated what chemo did to my body. 

Although I continued to work throughout my treatment, I felt unbelievably tired and emotional. It was relentless and the light at the end of the tunnel was often not visible. During my second paclitaxel session, sitting with my hands and feet in basins filled with ice cubes to prevent nerve damage, I thought I’m going to start swimming in the ocean; it can’t be worse than this. 

Cold water swimming

In October 2019, I signed up with a swimming group in Clifton that had a specific training programme to be able to swim a mile. I did this in six weeks. I was proud of myself as I wasn’t a swimmer, I enjoyed tennis. So, I went from land to water. 

The scarring from surgeries and radiation meant my muscles felt tight, and initially every stroke on my left side was uncomfortable. I had no upper body strength. 

I was also happy to take part in the 4th annual topless swim that took place in February 2020 at 1st Beach Clifton. It’s an informal swim organised by a group of open water swimmers to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer. It was a short topless ladies only swim so, basically, we all just took our costume tops off and swam. My pink Simply the Breast bathing cap is my favourite swimming accessory.

Invigorating and magical

Never did I anticipate just how much I would benefit from open water swimming. The first few minutes are always numb-bitingly cold but then soon you just feel an almost pleasant burning sensation and then, afterwards, so invigorated. When the water is clear, it’s easy to see fish and seals, and swimming in the kelp forests is quite magical.

Robben Island crossing

Since I’m a morning person, I posted on the swimming group to see if I had any takers for 5h45 swims at Clifton. I’m so grateful for my hardcore friend, Marilé, who became my swim twin and then Liezel who joined us as well.

After one of our swims towards the end of 2020, as Liezel and I defrosted in the car park, she mentioned that she wanted to swim Robben Island and I spontaneously agreed to join her. I had three months to train and soon I was swimming seven days a week, with the Robben Island crossing booked for 31 March 2021.

On the day of the swim, my head was strong, but my stomach was doing flick flacks. When we got to the island, it was eerily calm, and the cloud cover was so low it almost touched the ocean. The water was a tropical 15 degrees. We put our heads down and swam.

With about 3km to go, the mist lifted a bit and a hazy sun tried to make its way through the clouds. We could see land for the first time but that is when things got tougher. 

As we swam between the rocks, the current kicked in and the shore just never seemed to get closer. Finally, we were in the bay and it felt incredible! It felt like I could carry on swimming forever. I put my feet down and felt sand three hours and 12 minutes after we had set out.

I looked up and saw my friends, family and colleagues on the beach. Many of the folk were there 22 months ago when I rang the bell in the chemotherapy unit when I had my last session. I felt so grateful for their unwavering support.

Daunting but doable

In many ways the chemotherapy and my training for Robben Island were similar: daunting on one level but doable when one systematically approached the challenge bit by bit.

I really believe that being diagnosed with cancer and getting through the treatment has made me more focused and determined. I found a resilience I never knew I had and a new appreciation of my battle-scarred body. 

Laurelle Williams is the editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Write to the editor@buddiesforlife.co.za

MEET OUR EDITOR – Laurelle Williams

Laurelle Williams is the editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Write to the editor@buddiesforlife.co.za


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