For 10 days next month Norma Morrison from Broadford on Skye will spend up to eight hours a day walking the Great Wall of China for a charity challenge.
It will be a gruelling test of endurance, but scaling one of the world’s great wonders pales into insignificance compared to the journey she had to endure just under two years ago.
On 29th May 2014 Norma, aged just 37, was diagnosed with cancer – a shocking blow to someone who outwardly had seemed so fit and healthy. Out of the blue the busy mum of four was suddenly thrust into a world of hospitals, intensive treatment and nuclear science.
Fortunately, the treatment has been a success. But cancer is a life-changing experience, so on her road back to health Norma set her sights on a challenge which she hoped would help put her mind, and body, at ease. At the same time, she wanted to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity which works wonders for so many cancer patients and their families.
“Something like that happens to you and you want to feel fit again. I knew a marathon would have been too much for me to contemplate at this time but thought, and hoped, I could manage a walk,” she said of her journey, which begins on 22nd April.
“When you finish treatment you can over-analyse your condition. You get obsessed by it, and it’s not healthy.
“I wasn’t feeling great. I felt I needed a new goal to focus on to give myself a challenge. The walking has helped in so many ways. I feel so much better physically and there is nothing like being out in the good Skye air to make life feel better. Cancer is no longer my first thought when I wake in the morning, and that is huge step forward for me.”
As mum to four young boys, which she juggled with a hospital job and a variety of local voluntary roles, it’s fair to say that the prospect of a cancer diagnosis was the last thing on Norma’s mind back in the spring of 2014.
But when a regular smear test revealed ‘slight changes’ it prompted further examinations.
Her experience turned out to be a valuable reminder of the importance of regular testing, and of the services provided by the NHS.
Norma recalled: “I was quite dismissive at first. The initial results, I was told, looked fine but I was offered a biopsy which thank goodness I agreed to.
“Looking back, I can see there were a few little signs that something hadn’t been quite right.
“Not long after Blair, our youngest son, was born I went on a diet through Scottish Slimmers. I lost weight and everyone told me I looked great! But I remember saying my body didn’t feel strong. After that I started doing more fitness work, to try to boost my strength and to push myself.
“I thought the tiredness was to be expected. I was a mum of four doing bed and breakfast and working out-of-hours shifts at the local hospital. I was on the school parent council and the community council. I was non-stop. But now, I look back and see that the tiredness and losing weight was a sign.”
After diagnosis, treatment would involve weeks of chemotherapy and radiotherapy – a painful process which drains the body, saps energy levels and leaves a feeling of near-constant nausea.
Norma said: “I remember my sister Sara watching me unpack a bag and I was so exhausted after doing this small task she said it was as if I had just finished a marathon.”
The support of her husband Finlay and the wider family, Norma says, was invaluable during her recovery – not least the contribution made by sisters Mary and Sara, both of whom are nurses.
“I was exceptionally lucky,” Norma said. “I have two very special sisters who happen to be nurses. They supported, cared, cleaned and did whatever it took to make sure we, as a family, were OK. I also had lots of others around about me who helped in so many different ways. Moving in to make sure the boys weren’t pulled from pillar to post, making meals, taking the boys out for the day – the list goes on. But so many are not as lucky.
“And this is where Macmillan really does come into force. Macmillan are there for those who need help and support – I came across Macmillan at the very beginning and quickly I realised what a support they are to so many people.”
So far Norma’s fundraising has brought in over £4,200 for the charity, with more set to come in before she heads east next month.
To prepare, she has been clocking up the miles with a group of ladies who walk with her as often as they can. However, she admits she’ll be ‘out of her comfort zone’ when the trek – which she’ll do along with 30 others whose lives have been touched in some way by cancer – starts for real.
“The donations have been fantastic. We are fortunate to live in a community like this,” she added. “It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind journey for me, and I’m having butterflies the closer I get to heading off.
“On the last day of radiotherapy I remember walking down this corridor and having to stop for a rest at the halfway point. This old man smiled at me and said ‘this is an awfully long corridor, isn’t it’. That hospital corridor was one of hardest walks in my life – I don’t think any day in China will be as difficult as that.”
To donate visit Norma’s online fundraising page here