Four years after diagnosis, Ursula walked 3,700 miles round, through and across Wales
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 nearly 4,000 miles around Wales in between hospital appointments as a way of seeing if she could get back to who she was before her diagnosis. Ursula’s journey took her across, around, up, over and through all of Wales, as she walked over 3,700 miles, raising money and awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Now she has written a book about her experiences, One Woman Walks Wales.
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. 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 across Europe 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.
Although I had discovered this strength and self-reliance, 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 ovarian cancer?
Well, I did it – 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?
That also meant I could tie that in with fundraising and talking about symptom awareness, which were both things I felt very strongly about in the immediate aftermath of my cancer.
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 also raised money for Penny Brohn Cancer Care who help people with all cancers and gave me a lot of support. In the end I’d raised over £12,000.
A writer now
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”.
And when I'd finished the journey, exhausted and sore and travel hardened, I started it all over again. A vague dream of being a writer, based on the romantic ideal of a thousand books eagerly scoured, long hours spent living inside others creations. I travelled the path of learning to write, taking on a seemingly impossible target and pushing stubbornly ahead, treading words down bit by bit, keeping on returning to the page, day after day until the book came glimmering into being.
I have had cancer, I have walked 3700 miles, I have written a book and it is only now I have done these things that I know I am capable of them... but now I have that knowledge it has changed me forever. And I’m now ready for a new journey, to return to the eastern borders of Europe and make my way home on foot from the Ukraine to the UK, via Spain to mark being six years cancer free.
Ursula’s debut book, One Woman Walks Wales, is published by Honno Press and is available to buy on the Honno Press website. With a foreword by Anwen Jones, Chief Executive, Target Ovarian Cancer, from every print copy sold, £1 will be donated to Target Ovarian Cancer.