Erin Kennedy: Fighting Back
“Sport is insane in the way it can bring people together to such a degree that is unpredictable, extraordinary and humbling.” In her own words, GB coxswain Erin Kennedy provides an inspirational update on her breast cancer journey
By Erin Kennedy
My name is Erin Kennedy – I am a wife, an aunty, a granddaughter, a godmother, a friend, a Christian. I am a gardener, a baker, a sewer, a tutor and a businesswoman. I am a GB coxswain and a two-time European Champion, two-time World Champion and Paralympic Champion and a Guinness World Record holder. Oh, and I also have breast cancer.
Even before my diagnosis on the 25th May 2022, I decided, admittedly subconsciously, that cancer wouldn’t define me. Looking back, it was the most important decision I have ever made. And I didn’t even realise I had made it.
Now, a few months into 2023, it feels very surreal to look back and reflect on what I have gone through. In all honesty, it feels like it happened to someone else. I underwent an intensive two-week whirlwind of fertility preservation injections and surgery, starting treatment the day after my eggs were retrieved. I then had fifteen rounds of chemotherapy in just 150 days and in January, I had a double mastectomy and implant reconstruction.
My body changed significantly during chemo and the surgery has completely and permanently altered my chest. I look very different – half a stone lighter, no hair and a puffy face from the steroids, but in truth, I don’t really feel very different. Ultimately, what hasn’t changed from those early days to today is the way I am tackling my diagnosis mentally – with calm, methodical resilience and a determination to find joy in each and every day. I haven’t been able to control a lot of things over the past year, but I have been able to control the mood I get out of bed in every morning and I think that is what saves me.
It was early May 2022, I was on a training camp in Italy with the GB Para Rowing when I found a lump on my upper left breast in the shower. I checked myself regularly and I knew this was something new but in all honesty, I didn’t think it was anything sinister. I spoke to my Team Doctor who arranged an appointment and on my return from the training camp I met with the Oncologist and had a number of biopsies. My follow up appointment was scheduled for a week later, the day I was due to fly out to compete in my first ever World Cup in Serbia. Throughout my career, I had won every international rowing medal, other than a World Cup. I was determined that I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to compete in, and potentially win, my first World Cup. Therefore, I had some decisions to make and some processing to do.
The week when I was waiting for my appointment and packing for Serbia, without realising, I set the tone for my diagnosis and how I intended to live my life over the coming weeks and months. I spoke to my coaches and my teammates and explained the situation and asked them if I could fly out to the World Cup a day late. They asked me whether I would still want to compete if it was bad news. Without hesitation I said yes. What else was I going to do? Sit at home and feel sorry for myself and wish I was competing? Absolutely not. If it was bad news I would be even more determined to race, knowing that everything was about to change and that perhaps, this could be my last race for a long time. Turns out, I knew myself well – competing was the right thing to do.
My husband was with me when I was diagnosed, and we both agree, it was all a bit of a blur. I knew it wasn’t going to be a good meeting when we walked into the room because as well as the oncologist, a breast care nurse was sitting there. I thought – uh oh, you’re here for emotional support. All in all, the meeting wasn’t a fun experience, we felt out of our depth, desperately trying to process the news whilst attempting to understand what the doctor was saying as he used new language and terminology that was alien to us. After a number of additional scans we called our parents, I called my coaches and my team doctor, and then we headed home. The next day, my husband dropped me off at the airport and I flew out to Serbia.
It was exactly what I needed. I was able to put the events of the last 24 hours into a box and focus on something else, something I am good at and that I love. I had told my crewmates about the diagnosis over Whatsapp the evening I found out – I asked them not to make a fuss over me, no hugs or big displays of emotion – I was keen that we focus on the competition and enjoy every minute.
Four days after my cancer diagnosis, I won my first ever World Cup. The crew raced their hearts out and we crossed the line first, just 0.2 seconds off the World Best Time. Nobody would have guessed what we were dealing with, indeed only about 15 members of a 70 strong team knew about my diagnosis in Serbia. With the World Cup win, I had finally completed the set. More importantly, I knew how essential rowing would be throughout the next part of my journey.
I also knew that I didn’t want to keep my diagnosis a secret. I was 29 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I had only found the lump because I was vigilant about checking myself. If I hadn’t, my prognosis would have been very different. I have Triple Negative breast cancer, which essentially means that the cancer cells do not have certain hormone or protein receptors, which means it can be more challenging to treat. Early detection looks like it has saved my life. Sharing my story could save someone else’s life. It was a no brainer.
Four weeks after my diagnosis, I began to share my story on social media. I wanted to demonstrate the importance of early detection but also, what it actually looks like to live with cancer and have treatment. Often people don’t get suspicious lumps checked because they are scared of doctors telling them they have cancer – well, it has happened to me so perhaps sharing my story might make it a little less scary and make people go to the GP.
In these four weeks, I made some big decisions about how I wanted to approach the challenges that the next few months would throw at me. I was going to be open, be joyful and most importantly, not lose myself in my diagnosis. I also wanted to continue training and competing for as long as I could, knowing that at some point the scales would have to tip and I would have to step back temporarily to focus on my health.
As my calendar became busier with hospital appointments and I started chemotherapy, I sat with my oncologist and my team doctor to discuss the summer racing calendar. My oncologist was brilliant and recognised the importance of retaining some sort of normality, whilst also managing my treatment plan. It was mutually decided that the European Championships in August would be the target and the culmination of my season. After which, I would step back from competition to focus on treatment and miss the World Championships. It hurt to think about missing the Worlds – it was absolutely brutal but deep down knew it was what I had to do.
On 14th August 2022, my crew and I won the European Championships in Munich. My husband, my family and friends came out to watch. It was emotional – gut wrenching, heart pounding, passionate emotion.
All week, prior to racing, I soaked everything in. I knew how special it was to be there, I enjoyed every moment knowing it was my last for a while. I felt like it was my first regatta all over again. I had completed two rounds of chemotherapy, my hair was falling out, my skin was dry and sensitive and I was perpetually tired. But against all the odds, I was there. I was so grateful to everyone for getting me to the start line, British Rowing, my husband, my oncology team, my family and friends. The saying goes “it takes a village”, well when you have cancer, it turns out it takes a small city.
Only after the race did the enormity of it all hit me. Or rather, I finally allowed it to. I couldn’t stop the tears and I was so proud of what my team and I had achieved. I crossed the finish line as an athlete, not a cancer patient. That subconscious decision back in May to live life fully and joyfully was no longer just a pledge – I had proved to myself that it was possible. I flew home with my medal in my pocket and the next day I took it with me for my third round of chemotherapy.
Stepping back from the team after the Europeans was harder than I imagined. It felt bizarre to leave my crew at the very moment they were building up for the climax of the season. Fortunately the cox that stepped in for me for the Worlds is a good cox and a great friend, so I knew the team was in safe hands. I watched them race with pride and regret, and I cried as I watched them cross the line first.
What was particularly tough was still being in intensive weekly chemo when the team started the new season in late October. I was well aware that I wasn’t exactly hitting the ground running, if anything, I was getting buried under the side effects. I was due to finish chemo in early December and chemo brain and fatigue were wearing me down. The last few weeks were the toughest and I crawled my way to the finish line, finally ringing the end of treatment bell on 8th December 2022. It was incredibly emotional and the following weeks were wonderful as I slowly regained my energy and my mind.
The final major milestone was my mastectomy and I approached it in the only way I knew how – as an athlete. I wanted to be as ready as possible for surgery – I exercised, I ate well and I pre-habbed my body and got myself healthy post chemo. I went into my six-hour surgery knowing that I had done everything in my control to come out the other side fighting fit. Whilst the initial few days were rough, my recovery has been far quicker than anyone expected and I am on track to return to a boat in a few weeks time. Quite frankly, I can’t wait to be back.
One of the things I still struggle to articulate properly is how I feel about my team when I reflect on the Europeans and what they did for me in those first few months of treatment. They never questioned me, my intentions or my ability to perform, whether post diagnosis or midway through chemotherapy. They simply trusted me. Sport is insane in the way it can bring people together to such a degree that is unpredictable, extraordinary and humbling. I truly hope that others get to share a moment like this with their teammates one day, it was truly beautiful.
Everyday, I think why me? Not in the sense of woe is me. No, why me as in, what for? How can I make the very best of this? I am still working out the finer details but for now, I am happy to be able to share my story and I hope to encourage early detection, make breast cancer seem a little less scary and get more people into sport in order to chase those moments of joy that I have been lucky enough to experience.
The 2023 European Championships begin on the 25th May 2023, exactly one year to the day that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. You bet I am doing everything I can to be on that start line. Try and stop me.