Caroline Geraerts is a superwoman. Not only has she come to terms with the emotional scars of being diagnosed with breast cancer, but she is also running a successful online make-up business, and in her spare time is climbing mountains and doing aeroplane wingwalks.
The 59-year-old from Wimbledon is determined to raise awareness in the fight against breast cancer, and that’s why she’s taking part in this year’s Moon Walk from Clapham Common. She said she saw the event advertised and, having lost a close friend to cancer, she felt she had to take part. She tells Shujaul Azam her story.
“I was diagnosed April 21, climbed a mountain in May and had my op in June,” she said.
“I was on my annual mammogram watch for three years after I was discovered to have ADH (Abnormal Ductal Hyperplasia) in the right breast. The ADH was removed and a titanium pin inserted for ‘X marks the spot’. On my last mammogram I had a recall and I thought it was the ADH back again, but no, they’d discovered a small blob, and in the left boob this time.
“There is no history of breast cancer in my family as far as I know, so I didn’t fit the profile.
“The earliest I could be operated upon to remove the tumour was May 18, 2017, which worked out to be day two of a long-planned holiday.
“I had been training like mad to go to conquer Mount Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, near Morocco – North Africa’s highest mountain at 4,167 metres.
“With good friends I had tried four years previously but failed due to unexpected snowfalls and epic winds.
The medical team agreed I could delay my op to go and climb the mountain – so that meant two huge mountains for me in 2017. “Training after diagnosis was hard and being alone with my thoughts was tough but I tried to carry on as much as normal with work and my usual hectic life. I suppose I was very British about the whole thing.
“I was told by doctors to exercise and not to get too stressed – I needed mindfulness time and headspace. Also, I had to deal with a terrible scare when my mother discovered two lumps – thank god it was a scare.
“I was most scared of becoming ill due to treatment because I had no idea I had cancer and had not felt a lump or felt any different. It is the one illness where typically it’s the treatment that makes you ill and this scared the hell out of me – I don’t do ill.
“I just carried on with my life as much as normal as I could, throwing myself into my full-time job, running my own entertainment agency and doing my beloved exercise.
“I made some great boob buddies during my cancer episode and we agreed the hardest thing was protecting my parents from worry – mine are 86 and 85 and I’m an only child. Mum and dad so wanted to help, but living over an hour’s drive away it was not possible so I am truly grateful to my bestie, Liz and her partner Paul, who live around the corner from me, for their support, love and humour.
“Having climbed to the top of Mount Toubkal in May, I had a lumpectomy on June 1 – there was just a week to worry about the op after climbing the first mountain before I started on the second.
“I’d gone cold turkey on the HRT when I returned from my holiday and the effects of this were not nearly as bad as I expected. The lumpectomy didn’t really hurt either but boy did the lymph node removal.
“Early June turned out to be sweltering and having to wear a bra for two whole weeks non-stop in that heat and with the under arm bra line being just on the scar was the worst. I needed no pain-killers, but for about a month was exhausted due to the anaesthetic but made it back to work three days after the op – perhaps not the best of decisions looking back.
But I had a big event for my own business, StarTurn Entertainment, for my favourite client, Morleys Stores, six days after the op, and I couldn’t let them down.
“I was, after a couple of months, expecting to have radiotherapy, which would have meant three weeks (with weekends off) of trudging back and forth to the Royal Marsden, but that didn’t happen and that’s a whole other story. I am probably, on reflection, glad now about not having radiotherapy for many reasons, including the side-effects it can potentially bring such as lung tumours and heart trouble, added to which even having this treatment is no guarantee the cancer won’t come back.
“So for now it’s just the Tamoxifen which I’ll probably have to take for five years, and I am not liking it at all and it makes me feel just like I did before I started taking the HRT with menopausal symptoms, fuzzy thinking and aches and pains.
“While I was sort of prepared for the expected physical things associated with an operation, I had not anticipated the mental and emotional effects having cancer would bring. So I am grateful to The Haven for their help with my emotional well-being, and was amazed at the support available from the NHS too, post-op.
“Elizabeth was a fantastic support – she’s a lady as busy as me with her our own couture business, Liz attended every single appointment, accompanied me to visit my parents when I broke the news to them to give them comfort and assure them she would be there every step of the way. She took me to the hospital on operation day and stayed with me until I walked to the operating theatre; and was there when I was back on the ward and she looked after me post-op.
“Having cancer can be a lonely place and there were times when I needed to talk and times when I didn’t – Liz was there every step of the way.
“I cannot express my gratitude for having such an amazing friend. I don’t think I would have got through everything without Liz.
“One amazing lady, and every time I think about her support it makes me very emotional and incredulous how one human being can give so much for another.
“Work was great, too, working for a small, fast-growing business (Look Fabulous Forever). Being off would have a big impact but I was told to take whatever time I needed and to ask for whatever support I needed too.
“When I was 31, I lost my colleague and friend to breast cancer, she was just 32 and I wanted to do something in her memory and found The MoonWalk. I trained like a demon and raised lots of money to help the fight and try to help the one in eight women affected by breast cancer.
“Obviously my personal circumstances, plus the physical challenge, and the great camaraderie made me want to do The MoonWalk again – the thought I could help raise awareness of this prolific disease was important, too.
“When I was first diagnosed, my bestie’s partner, Paul said: “I suppose that means we’ll have to do the Moonwalk now.
“It made me laugh and I do like a bit of black humour. However, I’ve held him to it and it has given me something to aim for, having felt a little lost post-treatment.
“I am a regular hiker of 10-15 miles but for Paul I think this is a pretty big challenge and so far we’ve had a trot around Richmond Park (seven miles).
“Paul is going all out with his couture designer bra which his partner Liz will embellish for him – it’ll need to be a big bra.
“I’ll be walking with Paul and hoping my two best boob buddies I met during treatment will join us, too.
“We haven’t started a training plan just yet, but Paul and I do a weekly long walk building up to when we can do three circuits of Richmond Park non-stop (21 miles).
“I don’t work in a big company, but we do have lots of customers buying our lovely make-up. Many of whom are in the same boat as me. I’m hoping the boss will do a blog with a link to my sponsor page and I’ll also aim to hold a large fundraiser with music and entertainment helped by some of my own company’s lovely entertainers. I’ll be calling in some favours. Oh yeah, and wing walk if I can. It’ll scare the heck out of me but probably not quite as much as having cancer.
“I am hoping, like Paul, my MoonWalk bra will be a couture designer one, helped once more by Liz, of Elizabeth Bessant Couture – she loves beading so we will be spectacular with the most amazing jewel encrusted creations, no doubt.
“For my mindfulness I would like to attempt my own beading guided by Liz.
“Having walked it in 2003, provided entertainment for it in 2013 I know what a fantastic night the MoonWalk is and little did I think in 2018 I’d also have had the personal experience of breast cancer to spur me on.
“It is the most amazing atmosphere on the night, added to which you know you can help a little in the battle to support the women to cope with this disease.
“I like to do something special when I have a decade birthday, so in my 50th year I did an Everest Base Camp trek for the British Heart Foundation, bungee jumped and sky dived, and in 2018 I’ll be 60 and as well as doing the Moonwalk I have a desire to wingwalk, too.
“I will dedicate my walk to Andrea and all the other phenomenal women we’ve lost – gone but not forgotten.”
Don’t miss The MoonWalk London, Saturday 12th May 2018! Power Walk through the Capital at Midnight wearing a decorated bra, as you raise money and awareness for breast cancer charity, Walk the Walk. Sign up now: www.walkthewalk.org