The first woman to rowing across the Atlantic with incurable cancer said people think there is not life after a cancer diagnostic.
Kat Cordiner, 42, shattered the world record for rowing across the Atlantic with teammates Abby Johnston and Charlotte Irving, completing the 3,000-mile crossing from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to English Harbour in 42 days, seven hours and 17 minutes, knocking an astonishing seven days off the female trio record in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
Speaking to the Times, London-based Kat, who has secondary cervical cancer that cannot be cured, said people ‘think “cancer-chemo-death”,’ but that she wanted to show that many people live a full life with a form of cancer or another.
She admitted going through chemotherapy had been hard, but added she wanted to keep going with her rowing training because she did not want to let her teammates down before the race.
Kat Cordiner, 42, shattered the world record for rowing across the Atlantic with teammates Abby Johnston and Charlotte Irving. It is thought she is the first women with cancer to complete the challenge
‘Chemo isn’t great, but I wanted to keep moving and training because I didn’t want to let the girls down and because mentally, exercise is good for me,’ she said.
Revealing she had to be scanned and declared physically fit to take part in the rowing challenge, Kat said she told her oncologist she would take part in the race no matter her scans.
She added focusing on training for the challenge was better than talking about her treatment options with her team of doctors, and proved a good distraction from her illness.
In the two years leading up to the race, Charlotte, Kat and Abby spent all of their free time training and barely saw their friends and loved ones.
Charlotte, Abby and Kat spent all their free time training in the two years that led to the challenge. Kat trained throughout her chemo treatment
During their journey, they rowed for two hours, had a break, and then repeated for 18 hours a day, from 5am to 11pm. They only stopped a short while on Christmas Day and New Year’s in order to meet their goal.
The women are raising money for Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and have raised £62,000 so far.
They will sell the boat they competed on – called Dolly Parton – in order to raise more funds for their charities.
While Charlotte said she won’t take part in another race, Abby and Kat have suggested they could do the Pacific Ocean next.
Kat said she doesn’t know how much time she has left, but that she doesn’t want to waste it.
The women (pictured) completed the 3,000-mile crossing from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to English Harbour in 42 days, seven hours and 17 minutes, knocking an astonishing seven days off the female trio record in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge
The three women (pictured) given an emotional dockside welcome by family and friends who had flown out to celebrate with them
What is cervical cancer screening?
By law, every woman in Britain is invited for cervical cancer screening – known as a smear test – between the ages of 25 and 64.
The test involves removing cells from the cervix with a speculum and examining them for abnormalities.
If someone tests positive, they are sent for an examination to definitively check if they have the disease.
If they are diagnosed with cancer, the affected parts are removed either with laser or freezing treatment.
Some 3,200 women develop the cancer in Britain each year, and the disease kills nearly 1,000. But experts think another 2,000 women would die every year without the programme.
In 2004, the start age for screening was raised from 20 to 25 because the disease seldom affects women so young.
But the death of Jade Goody from cervical cancer aged 27 in 2009 led to calls to lower the screening age again.
However, the development of a vaccine for HPV, which was rolled out to all British schoolgirls from 2008, is thought to have allayed some concerns.
Speaking of Kat, Abby said people always want to talk to her about cancer, but that her teammate wanted to focus on something that is not related to her illness.
It is thought Kat is the first person to tackle this challenge as a cancer patient.
She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in March 2019, completely by chance as she was having her eggs harvested in the hope of having a baby in the future.
She was ‘distraught’, although she said she was more upset about not being able to carry a child than she was about the cancer.
Kat underwent a radical hysterectomy but doctors left her ovaries as she wanted to do another round of egg-freezing. Once her eggs were harvested, she had her ovaries removed.
After the surgery, all seemed well. But in June 2020, she began experiencing stomach pains and knew instantly the cancer was back.
Kat worried that going back into treatment would scupper the crew’s chances of taking part in the Atlantic Row.
But there was a further blow – despite training through chemotherapy, doctors found a growth on her heart and told her to stop exercising immediately.
Her medical team treated the cancer first and then operated on her heart to remove the tumour.
She was treated with carboplatin, paclitaxel, and targeted therapy drug avastin, as well as six sessions of radiotherapy.
Cancer Research UK was involved in the development of paclitaxel and played an important role in the underpinning research behind carboplatin and avastin.
After exhausting intensive cancer treatment, heart surgery and six months without training, she got back in the boat.
Ms Cordiner said: ‘It floored me a bit initially and more than anything I was peeved because I couldn’t exercise. But when I got back in the boat, I was quite strong – I knew I could do it!’
The 42-year-old is now in remission and only taking drugs to deal with the effects of being plunged into an early menopause.
She said: ‘The doctors have told me I don’t have decades, I have years, so I really want to make the most of them. I don’t want to muck around doing stuff that doesn’t matter – I want to do things that are challenging and fun.
‘I don’t know how long I’ll be in remission. A lot of people think cancer/chemo/death. But today the drugs are so much better – you can live your life with cancer. People live for years on treatment.’
To donate to Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, head to the We Are ExtraOARdinary Go Fund Me page.