Nellie Archer, 50, from Bodmin, Cornwall, sometimes chooses to take various bits of memorabilia –or the odd bit of costume – along with her to her three weekly chemotherapy treatments. She’s usually got family members or close friends with her and they’ll always take a ‘selfie’ to put on Facebook. Next week [at the time of writing], her friend, Jenny, from her running club, will be coming along with her and they’re planning on bringing along their race medals from the notoriously tough 11-mile event at the Roseland August Trail (RAT) race, which they completed this summer, to honour Team GB and Paralympic GB on their amazing results from Rio 2016. “The reason I do that is to try to inspire people to think, ‘Cancer doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all to everything in my life,’” explains Nellie.
Since being diagnosed with metastatic (secondary) breast cancer in September 2013, Nellie has learned to adopt this particular outlook on life with cancer. She would not live with cancer, cancer would live with her; it would not upturn her bubbly and energetic demeanour and it would most certainly not stop her from running when she was able to. “Not everything revolves around cancer and it took me a long time to realise that,” says Nellie. “We know it’s life limiting but, at the end of the day, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to lead a relevantly normal life.” For Nellie, running two to three times a week with her friends at Bodmin Women’s Running Club is one of her favourite pastimes and one that became of particular importance to her when she came face to face with Secondary Breast Cancer three years ago.
“After some programmed surgery, I wasn’t recovering as well as expected and my health began to deteriorate. My GP thought I could be suffering from sepsis and prescribed antibiotics but my health rapidly deteriorated to the extent where I was an emergency admission to the Royal Cornwall Hospital, Treliske in Truro. It was there that tests showed very high calcium levels in my blood which probably explained why I was drinking so much milk – up to five pints a day.
“Like most people would, I had a look on Google – I wish I hadn’t – and it just kept mentioning ‘high calcium levels = cancer’. I was like, ‘That can’t be me, I haven’t got cancer, I’ve not got any symptoms’ but it was. I went for a scan which showed I had a 2.9 cm lump in my breast, I had two lymph nodes also affected and there were shadows on my bones and liver and lesions on my spine. I had 18 straight weeks of chemotherapy with all the horrible side effects associated with that. I now have a three-weekly cycle of antibody drugs which are a lot kinder and I’ll be on this regime for the rest of my life.”
After nearly a year and a half of arduous treatment, Nellie received a second devastating blow – the news that her cancer had spread further. “I was doing really well and then, in January 2015, it had actually spread to my brain so I had to have an all-over-head radiotherapy, so I lost all my hair for the second time. I had about 50 clusters at the back of my brain and the radiotherapy got rid of most of them but there were some small clusters remaining.
“I was referred to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, where they have a specialist unit for treating breast cancer in the brain and a fantastic team to look after me. I had high-intensity targeted beam radiotherapy. That worked, in terms of the bits it targeted, it did get rid of – or shrink – them but, unfortunately, more have replaced those now and the disease in my brain is still progressive. There is only a limited amount of this high-intensity treatment that I can have.”
RUNNING AFTER TREATMENT
One of the side effects of Nellie’s treatment is chronic fatigue, so she was keen to use her running to maintain her fitness and help build her stamina. However, aggressive regimes of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and antibody treatment, at times, made this near impossible. “When I was on my treatment, I was out walking the dogs and trying to keep myself fit but I couldn’t actually run at that stage. I was heaving and all sorts, it was horrendous.”
“[However] when I’d finished my all-over-head radiotherapy, in April 2015 we ran the Plymouth Half Marathon. I got some of my friends together, there were about 20 of us, we call ourselves ‘Nellie’s Army’, and we raised nearly £7,000 for CoppaFeel!. It’s a cancer charity that raises awareness for young people to educate and give advice on Breast Cancer. The charity’s Boobettes go into schools and educate young people on how to check themselves and what feels normal to them, so they can be aware of any abnormalities. Early detection is key and, unfortunately, I didn’t have that.”
Passionate about fundraising for CoppaFeel! and keeping up her fitness, Nellie has stayed committed to her running, training for and competing in various fundraising events with Nellie’s Army for the charity. Last August, the team took on the Roseland August Trail (RAT) race – a hilly 11-mile coastal event – which saw Nellie taking home an award for her admirable strength in her battle against cancer. “The Merlot Rat, they’ve called it [the award]. It’s a beautiful trophy, it’s in honour of David Rowe who inspired the trophy because of his own courage and determination during his own illness and it’s about strength over adversity. I was so honoured, it was lovely.”
“We had the Bodmin Carnival [in August] and we’ve got a Nellie’s Army banner. We’ve got a chant we do for CoppaFeel! and we were singing that all through the streets of Bodmin. So Nellie’s Army is becoming a little bit of a crusade now.”
For Nellie, staying committed to her passion in the face of cancer has helped her regain a sense of control living with such a vile disease. “I always felt quite guilty of blaming everything on it but, actually, it doesn’t need to be like that. [For example] sometimes I wake up feeling a bit down and my friend, Angie, said to me, ‘Everyone wakes up bit down, it’s not just because you have cancer’.
“[Running gives you] endorphins for a start, so… just makes you feel better. Obviously when the cancer spreads to your brain, it plays mind games with you, so I’m always as positive as I can be. I’ve always said I don’t live with it, it lives with me. ”
Next April, Nellie will be running the 2017 London Marathon for CoppaFeel! after securing a place through Bodmin’s Women’s Running Club. “I’m chuffed to bits,” says Nellie. “When I’m giving people updates I always hashtag ‘UpYoursCancer’, which they love. My message is to say that you actually can live with stage four breast cancer. If you are able to, don’t be afraid to run – it makes you feel great!”