JOHN WHITE: Wearing the scars as an affirmation of life

Kate on her bike

The definition of ‘abreast’ is beside one another, in line or alongside, but also keeping up with something, such as knowledge.

Apparently, its use is quite old, from perhaps the fifteenth century.

I suspect it will have originally had military connotations, soldiers marching in rows ready for battle. You can’t really be physically one abreast, but I suppose one person can be abreast of a situation.

A friend’s daughter has drawn a powerful logo. It is a little stick torso with helmeted head, obviously a motorcycle helmet, full face with vents and a visor.

The body is naked with only one breast, where the left breast would normally be is a crude Frankenstein row of stitches. It is a brilliant piece of design with both brutality and humour, poignancy and meaning.

It is obviously a caricature of a woman who has had a mastectomy, the surgical operation where by a breast is removed hopefully to prevent the spread of cancerous cells. The woman obviously rides a motorcycle.

I hadn’t seen Kate for over 30 years, when we used to work together at an outdoor management training centre in Wales, through social media and mutual friends we reconnected and I discovered she had challenged herself to ride her quite old 600cc Honda motorbike around the coast of the UK.

She decided not to include islands, but that Skye would be ok because of our bridge. Apart from a personal challenge, she is also raising money for the well-known Maggie’s centres and some cancer support charities local to her home.

Another main reason was to raise awareness of breast cancer.

The logo of Kate’s journey

I of course offered her a place to stay. This would also be an excellent excuse to haul the Ducati out of the shed and join her for a few miles, and despite still recovering from my mountain bike crash in France, Saturday saw me waiting in Somerled square with my motorcycle, pondering how different it all was since the lockdown ‘Ducati Drug’ runs.

Back then, when parking up in the middle of the square, mine would be the only vehicle and there would be no-one else about except Sandy distributing the prescriptions from the chemists. Last weekend it was as busy as ever and left me wondering if we have arrived at the new normal.

Of course this then led me to ponder on what normal is as we never know what is round the corner, normality is both fragile and fluid…

A blue motorcycle arrived behind the bus, tank bag, seat bag and a big set of canvas panniers almost enveloping its rider.

When soft luggage is strapped on, a person almost sits in the bike, cocooned with bags of tent, sleeping stuff, spare clothes, bits and bobs. As Kate shuffled off the bike I remembered the strange hopping dance one has to do, instead of swinging a leg over the back, you have to bounce one legged while the other threads between the luggage.

After a quick leather and Gore-Tex clad hug and a few words, we were heading north, and we could catch up at home over a beer and food.

I have found that most people don’t change very much over years. We get older, sometimes greyer, perhaps wrinkled with life’s experience but we are mainly the same person.

I found however that with the familiarity of old friendship and a touch of what is perhaps stranger anonymity, I ended up being more searching in our conversations.

I asked her what it was like to have a mastectomy.

She told me straight out: “better than dying”.

She had found a lump in her breast while in the shower one day, and after a couple of visits to doctors, there was a clinic appointment. As soon as they did a biopsy she knew it was cancer.

“It was like having a gun pressed into your back,” she said. “The following day I flew to the Alps and skied like a demon (descending) the height of Everest in one day. I didn’t want to come down off the mountain and face what was next”.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be given such news, and hope never to know. Without experience I believe there is only really empathy, not understanding.

I can, however, appreciate wanting to run, not wanting to come down from a mountain and face reality.

Each week there was a worse prognosis and during what she describes as ‘a whirlwind’  there was the mastectomy, lymph node clearance, chemotherapy and targeted therapy.

The impact of these medical interventions were brutal, she simply said, “I lost my breast my hair and my mind for a while”.

We talked about prosthesis, the breast shaped padding for a bra, we talked about going swimming, “once you are in the water nobody can really see” and the end of wearing any low-cut dresses that might have once shown off a cleavage.

We talked a little about beauty and femininity. She showed me pictures that a photographer friend of hers took as a project on scars, designed to make us question the perception of looks and beauty.

I am sure that the motorbike trip is part of a rebuilding process, an affirmation of life, as well as a charity money raising challenge.

It is certainly an adventure – we looked at maps spread out over the living room floor, the route marked in yellow highlighter, hundreds, thousands  of miles, the scale only evident when comparing the size of Skye with the whole of Scotland and then some.

Having started in Exeter, her path was along the bottom of England, then up the east side, around the top of Scotland and now she is heading south again down the west coast.

It will be some 4000 miles in total! By the time this week’s paper is published she might just be back in England, perhaps on the edge of the Lake District.

My thoughts have gone back to her daughter’s logo and the cartoon stitch marks instead of a breast.

Kates challenge is called ‘one a breast’ a pun on being a solo motorbike rider with a mastectomy. The NHS states that an incredible 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.

Thinking of all the thousands of women that Kate will have ridden past on her journey, driving in cars and living in the towns and villages she has travelled through. Over 12 percent of them will get breast cancer.

If you are a woman reading this, check yourself regularly and have any changes checked by a GP. 

It might save your life.

Kates journey can be followed on Facebook “Friends of One Abreast” or instagram “one abreast

This column by JOHN WHITE was published in the West Highland Free Press on the 20th August 2021. John writes a column in the paper each week. To subscribe, click on this link