33-year-old Claire Flatt was a healthy young nurse and nurse lecturer at Birmingham City University with an active life and no symptoms of cancer. So it came as a great shock when she was diagnosed with not one but two different types of cancer just two weeks apart.
Claire reports that she came home from work one day feeling a bit “odd” and experienced some abnormal bleeding. She went to her doctor the next day and from there “ended up in an ambulance and was taken to hospital.” There, a biopsy was done, along with some other scans. One week later, in August of 2017, is when Claire’s world was shattered for the first time.
It was stage 2B cervical cancer, followed just a fortnight later by a second diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer. Later, she found out that she and her sister both had the BRCA2 gene mutation that increases their risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
“It was a crazy couple of weeks,” she remembers. “Prior to that I had IVF in April, and our plan was to recommence IVF in October. At that point, I was fit, healthy and hoping to start a family.”
Since being diagnosed, Claire has undergone a wide variety of treatments, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy, brachytherapy, a double mastectomy, and other surgeries. She dealt with fatigue, sickness, weight loss, hair loss, radiation burns, and medically induced infertility and menopause.
But all along the way, she has been determined to show the world that not only is it possible to survive cancer, it’s also possible to live well while you’re going through it. She has staunchly rejected the notion that she’s a victim of cancer and instead joined a running club to improve her mental and physical health while she underwent treatment.
In that same spirit, Claire began preparing to run a marathon. She ran her first 5k in December of 2018, just a month after getting the news that she was cancer-free. And then she kept going, making it up to 20 miles in her training for the final 26.2-mile run. The 2019 London Marathon took place just nine months after her final chemotherapy treatment and even less time after her last surgery.
Obviously, Claire wasn’t expecting to win the marathon, but she hoped that her story could inspire others to live their best lives, even with cancer.
“The goal is just to get to the end in one piece,” she says. “To go from chemo to a marathon in nine months, to even get to the start line, is incredible.”
Claire is still dealing with follow-up procedures now that she’s cancer-free, like a preventive procedure in July in which she’ll have her ovaries removed. After that, she hopes, she’ll no longer have to worry about her cancer risk.
“I’m already in menopause, I’m already infertile. Having my ovaries out at this point is kind of a means to an end,” she says.
Claire also intends to have breast reconstruction, hopefully within the year. After that, she hopes to be done with medical procedures for a while.
“I have had a double mastectomy, so having my ovaries out at this point… I will be glad for the operations to be done and to look forward to my life,” says Claire. “I am looking forward to closing this chapter and moving forward.”
“The most important thing to me is getting exercise and getting out of the house, and living normally,” she continues. “I have tried to live the best I can with cancer. I have continued as normal.”
Claire also hopes to encourage women to get regular pap smears and breast screening. She laments not checking her breasts often enough, and, even though she was among the minority who gets cervical cancer despite being up-to-date on pap smears, she knows the tests have saved so many lives.
“Seventy-five percent of cervical cancers can be prevented through smears. I was in the 25 percent. I was unlucky. Don’t delay [getting a smear] if you can protect yourself. The treatment is barbaric.”
Don’t forget to check yourself regularly and get your recommended screening!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?