Faye McSweeney, 46, is a recruitment and engagement officer for the Metropolitan Police. She was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in August 2020. In September 2021 she competed in the National Fitness Games as part of the Women's Health team.
I remember so clearly the moment I found the lump in my left breast, near my collarbone. It was July 2020, and I was in the car with my husband Mark when I asked him if he could feel it; when he did, he found several more.
My sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer three years earlier, so my GP called me in straight away. A mammogram, an ultrasound and eight biopsies later, a doctor delivered the news that I had stage three breast cancer.
In many ways, I was lucky: lucky to have been diagnosed quickly in a year when so many were not; lucky that it hadn’t spread. But the cancer was growing quickly. A mastectomy was scheduled for the following week, which would be followed by four months of chemotherapy. Covid restrictions meant I attended each appointment alone and, some days, Mark would have to force me to get out of the car and walk into the breast cancer unit for my treatment.
Exercise became a lifeline. The morning after my mastectomy, I went on a three-mile walk and it became a morning ritual. Throughout my chemotherapy, I went to the gym three times a week, even if only to run on the treadmill for 20 minutes. And when gyms closed, during the second national lockdown, I bought some light weights and started performing simple moves in my garden.
I’d never trained using weights before. As well as losing my breast, I’d lost the muscle and tissue surrounding it, and I needed to re-build my strength from scratch. It was incredibly tough. In the weeks after surgery, I couldn’t carry a bag of shopping and the first time I tried to do a push-up, I cried. But I learnt basic moves like a Cossack Squat by watching videos of Laura Hoggins, and when the gyms re-opened in April, I honed my technique with a PT, too.
By the time I saw the feature about the NFG in Women’s Health, I was deadlifting 40kg – and I loved the way strength training made me feel. A year earlier, I’d have written the competition off as something for younger, fitter women. But you can’t go through breast cancer and not come out of it with a different mindset. I thought: they could have told me I had six months to live, but they didn’t, so what have I got to lose?
When the day arrived, it was every bit as tough as I’d anticipated. But my teammate Becki was incredibly supportive, and we cheered each other through. At the end of my last event, I felt so overwhelmed that I burst into tears. That week, a year earlier, I was having my mastectomy wound stapled ahead of starting chemo. It was a poignant reminder that while cancer can take so much from you – body parts, hair, dignity – it can never define you. I might have lost a year of my life, but I gained so much more.
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