Erin Kennedy: Fighting Back

“I crossed the finish line as an athlete, not a cancer patient.” In her own words, GB coxswain Erin Kennedy tells us why breast cancer won’t define her, and how she wants to raise awareness to help others

By Erin Kennedy

My name is Erin Kennedy – I am a wife, an aunty, 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. 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.

Erin lifts weights at the GB Rowing Centre in Caversham, post cancer diagnosis, June 2022.

I was on a training camp in Italy with the GB Para Rowing Team when I found a lump on my upper left breast in the shower. It was just a general routine check that I do quite often – I have a paternal history of breast cancer so I have always been conscious of checking my chest, therefore, I knew my normal and knew that this wasn’t normal and I knew immediately that I needed to get it checked.

In all honesty, I didn’t think it was anything sinister. My team doctor arranged an appointment and on 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.

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 was right.

Erin waits for chemotherapy in the Royal Surrey Hospital, June 2022.

My husband was with me when I was diagnosed, and we both agree, it was all a bit of a blur. 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 exactly the doctor was saying as he used new language and terminology that was alien to us. A number of additional scans and meetings followed and then the next day my husband dropped me off at the airport and I flew 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 wanted to give them the opportunity to process it before I arrived the next day, well aware that whilst it had a big impact on me, it was going to have a ripple effect on those closest to me too. 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 around 15 members of a 70 strong team knew about the diagnosis in Serbia. With the World Cup win, I had finally completed the set. More importantly, I knew how essential rowing and the support of my team and coaches 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 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 really was a no brainer.

l-r: Frankie Allen, Giedre Rakauskaite, Ed Fuller, Ollie Stanhope and Erin, after winning the 2022 World Rowing Cup, May 2022, 4 days post Erin's diagnosis.

fighter

Erin with her mum, Maria Wysocki-Jones, prior to Port-o-Cath surgery, August 2022.

Four weeks after my diagnosis, I began to share my story on social media. I had two aims – firstly, it was and is very cathartic for me to sit down and write a post about what I am going through. Secondly, 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.

Erin laughs with teammates during a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class on training camp, February 2022.

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.

Continuing to turn up to training with my team every day was essential to supporting my mental and physical wellbeing. My teammates were (and still are) my second family and somehow knew how to navigate the bizarre situation we all found ourselves in. They proverbially (and often physically) wrapped their arms around me, looked out for me and sensitively asked how things were going whilst also taking the mickey out of me and absolutely destroying me at Monopoly Deal or The Mind.

l-r: Erin, Ellen Buttrick, Giedre Rakauskaite, James Fox and Ollie Stanhope on a training camp in Varese, Italy, May 2021.

I also threw myself into other projects too to keep my mind busy. I was selected to be a part of the 2022 Women’s Sport Trust’s Unlocked programme along with 35 elite female athletes from over 30 different sports. The support I have received from this unique, inspirational community, as well as my Unlocked activator has been incredible. They have encouraged and equipped me to speak up about my passion for breast health and more widely about the need for improved access to sports bras for young girls getting into sport.

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 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 I knew it was what I had to do.

Erin in A&E following an admission during chemotherapy, October 2022.
Erin after winning the European Championships and two rounds of chemotherapy.

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, 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. I knew that I had challenges ahead; a lot more chemotherapy, not to mention a double mastectomy and reconstruction in the New Year. However, that subconscious decision back in May to live life fully and joyfully was no longer just a pledge but I had proved to myself that it was possible.

One of the things I still struggle to articulate properly is how I feel about my team when I reflect on that moment and what they did for me this season. 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 in a way 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.

l-r: Erin, Ollie Stanhope, Ed Fuller, Giedre Rakauskaite and Frankie Allen after winning the European Championships in Munich, August 2022.

I am in the trenches right now, still in the midst of chemotherapy and doing my best to manage the impossible balance of needing rest without putting your life on hold. 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 less scary and get more people into sport in order to chase those moments of joy that I have been lucky enough to experience.

Erin celebrates with husband Sam after winning the European Championships in Munich, August 2022.

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