Ursula Martin was 31 and house sitting in Bulgaria when she was diagnosed with stage 1A ovarian cancer during a Christmas visit home. In early 2014, the now 35-year-old decided to walk 3,300 miles around Wales in between hospital appointments as a way of seeing if she could get back to who she was before her diagnosis. So far, Ursula has walked 2,200 miles, made countless strangers her friends and raised £7,478.29 for Target Ovarian Cancer and Penny Brohn Cancer Care.
My diagnosis came as a complete surprise. Not only was I relatively fit; I was relatively young too, which meant I didn’t recognise what was happening in my body.
I’d been having abdominal pain for a while and I felt like there was something in my belly. I just thought I was having some sort of weird period pain. I came back to the UK for a Christmas visit and mentioned to a few family members that I didn’t feel like I could bend properly; it felt like there was something in the way.
I went see the doctor and he said he thought I had a large ovarian cyst. I had a scan which showed I had a growth and they said the blood tests were showing it was a type of tumour. I ended up having abdominal surgery about three weeks later. At that point they told me I had stage 1A ovarian cancer: it was a very large tumour but I was really lucky because it was contained within a cyst like growth, which meant it hadn’t had the chance to spread.
I feel very lucky
In terms of the general range of diagnoses and prognoses that can happen with ovarian cancer I’m at the really good end of the scale. I had my right ovary removed and was able to go into follow up treatment without having any chemotherapy or radiotherapy; basically check ups every three months to start with and then every six months for five years.
Although the average survival rate for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer is 35 per cent survival rate, for me it’s 94 per cent as there is only a 6 per cent chance that my cancer will come back in the next five years. I feel very lucky.
Walking was part of my recovery. Before the cancer, to get to Bulgaria I had kayaked down the River Danube. My plan had been to walk back to the UK after I’d finished house sitting. Traveling helped me be more spontaneous and trust myself.
Once you’ve hitchhiked to Spain you know you can handle anything. That knowledge was reassuring and made me a stronger and more self reliant person. I don’t know if that’s what I was searching for when I started to travel but that’s certainly what I found in myself when I did.
The diagnosis might have hit me much harder it had come before I’d discovered that strength, but after my treatment I suddenly felt very scared. I had been utterly free and then I was utterly vulnerable. Physically and mentally I wasn’t able to return to the life I had been living and I also had this schedule of hospital appointments stretching before me.
It was a case of finding a way to deal with the fact that my life had changed so much. Six months after my surgery I walked to hospital in Bristol for the first time. It sounds rubbish to say but it was such a personal journey. It was my way of asking myself whether I was the same person. Am I still OK? Can I walk 400 miles and camp along the way? Could I be as adventurous as I was before cancer?
I did that by myself and I knew I was still me. I could be adventurous and still feel safe. It was my way of coming back to myself post cancer. Then I thought: what if I walked to hospital and didn’t come home again? What if I kept on going and walked around Wales and came back in time for the next appointment?
What can I do?
During a post cancer experience you get this feeling of “what can I do?” Target Ovarian Cancer were the charity that helped me during my illness. I saw a poster in the hospital and made contact and they sent me an information pack.
I’m also raising money for Penny Brohn Cancer Care who help people with all cancers and gave me a lot of support. I’m about 2,200 miles in (of 3,300) and I’m way over the time target. I’m really slow. As soon as you start doing it; things happen. Blisters, pain…once that stuff starts to take over you can’t stick to your targets.
I just walk now and I’m not worried about when it’s going to finish, being the fastest or walking the furthest. It’s just about me and my feet and how far I can go every day.
By the time I’ve finished this walk I’ll have undergone around four years of post cancer treatment. I’d like to look into not completing my five years of treatment. For me that’s something to do with cancer not having power over me any more; not being scared of it. But I don’t know how sensible that is.
I also feel like I have some unfinished business. I want to walk across Europe; that’s what I was planning to do when cancer cut my journey short. I want to pilot a boat to the Black Sea and I want to walk back. I haven’t decided whether to do that after the five years is up or before my treatment is officially finished. I don’t want cancer to rule my life and that’s what a lot of my journey has been about.
During the illness was a very fearful time. Coming to terms with it afterwards is about coming to terms with your fear. I don’t want to be scared anymore.
I’ve had such a wonderful time doing the walk and a massive part of that has been down to the people that I’ve met; the complete strangers who have been so brilliantly generous to me. I’ve been tired, in pain, exhausted, hungry – all those things – but there’s always been that base level of “this is bloody brilliant”.
It’s never too hard. There’s a thrill in that.
Crossing the 1,000 mile mark was a really big thing. If you have the stamina, determination, organisation and everything else to walk 1,000 miles…you can walk 10,000. So why couldn’t I walk across Europe, or across Africa – or from Chile to Alaska? I can go on for as long as I want, so why not?
Or maybe I’ll fall in love and have some babies instead.
You can follow Ursula’s blog at One Woman Walks Wales. Ursula's story was originally published in Standard Issue Magazine and written by Sam Wonfor. Please visit their website for further coverage of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month 2015.