Almost a year to the day after being diagnosed with breast cancer, coxswain Erin Kennedy helped her team win gold at the European Championships, and in July 2024 was selected for her second Paralympic Games.

Just four weeks after her diagnosis, while still competing for British Rowing, she decided to share her story publicly at every step of the way. In doing so, she provided a detailed and engaging account to support others fighting cancer.

Below, she explains why.

When did you set your mind on a sporting return?

From the very beginning I didn’t want it to be the end of my career, if that was at all possible.It started with trying to stay in the sport and competing for as long as possible. I went straight off after diagnosis and competed at a World Cup in Belgrade and then went to the Europeans when I was on chemo in August. It was becoming clear to my team and I that I needed to prioritise my treatment and step back from the sport, and that was when the real goal for coming back was solidified.

Once I’d got an idea of the timeline: finishing chemo just before Christmas, surgery in January, you start to dare to hope that it’s possible to get back.

The idea goes from conception to: ‘Okay, this is possible,’ to: ‘I think I can do this,’ to: ‘Yeah, I’m definitely going to be able to do this.’ And that’s actually a really nice place to be, because over the previous months I’ve had so much go against me and not go my way, so it’s been nice to have lots of things fall into place.

Did you imagine being back on a podium in your first competition back?

I’m part of an incredibly successful crew. We had a few personnel changes which definitely required me to step back in and step up in a big way to make sure I was doing my best to get the best out of the crew.

But nothing is a given. I had to come in and essentially make sure I wasn’t easing myself back; I had to come in punching really hard in order to make sure that podium was secured. I’m not going to pretend – it definitely wasn’t all me, at all. I came into a really successful team, but the odds were against us a little bit this season so we all had to work really hard to make things click and it all fell into place on the right day.

You chose to document your journey and share it publicly. What motivated you to do that?

There are a few reasons. I have to admit, one of the worst parts about getting diagnosed is actually telling people and letting people know what’s going on. People feel very reluctant to ask how you are because they don’t know if that’s appropriate, if they should or if they can, and what you’re willing to share.A lot of people, I realised, were quite naïve and didn’t realise what I was going through in terms of what cancer looks like, chemotherapy looks like and this sort of thing.

One reason was to talk about it to raise awareness, but also to educate and inform in hopefully an honest and real way that’s actually interesting. Lastly, it ended up being a really great tool for me to process what was going on. And also just to keep everyone in the loop and normalise it so that if people did want to ask me how I was, they had an idea of what I was going to say and they were keeping up with what was going on.

It hopefully de-stigmatised it a little bit as well. I work in para-sport where there’s incredible awkwardness from the healthy or able-bodied person about how to interact or talk to someone who’s not very well or has a disability… Sometimes you need to start a conversation.

What do you make of the reaction to your story?

It’s very odd. I’ve always been fairly anonymous in my sport, especially as a cox: you’re ticking along and doing a job.I think the best part of it is I still get messages now from people who’ve recently been diagnosed. The great thing about social media and Instagram is they just need to scroll, start the journey again, and read through some of these things.

Lots of people message me, and I really appreciate that they take the time, to basically say: ‘This has really helped me understand this, or made me less scared, or helped me appreciate what my friend is going through.’It's pretty amazing and I’ve tried to be as open and honest as possible because there are lots of things people are squeamish about, don’t like to talk about, and it’s my every day, so I think why not talk about it.

What were the touch points between sport and recovery?

Exercise around chemotherapy and your treatment, where you can, is really good for you. So people have reached out saying it’s really reassuring to see someone able to keep exercising, able to come back to exercising. It’s good to be able to share my insights.

It’s really, really personal but there are things as an athlete I thought about doing before my mastectomy, for example, like prehab, which is such a normal thing for an athlete to do but maybe your average person wouldn’t think to do that and/or wouldn’t see the value in it. Being able to share those athlete insights hopefully help people whether they’re athletes, sporty people or your average person.

Does talking up help to reduce the isolation athletes might feel, given how few will experience a major illness like cancer during their career, and how unique their challenge is when that happens?

I was very lucky, I don’t think I ever felt particularly isolated per se, but I definitely felt like we were figuring things out at rowing that we’ve never had to figure out before.

We really had to figure some things out with British Rowing about what it looks like to have an athlete on programme who has this sort of illness, and how we manage support, treatment, funding and all of that. British Rowing did a really good job and I think there was a lot of collaboration between them, our Chief Medical Officer Ann Redgrave, and my oncologist, Dr Paterson, to figure out what this looks like.

Hopefully there will be lessons learned and shared more widely, so if other sports end up in a similar situation we can take the best bits of what we’ve learned.

What have you said to your teammates since coming back?

[Coming back] has been amazing… I’ve been really blessed over the last five or six years of my career with some really brilliant people. I always say that’s the reason I do a team sport, because I like being part of a team and really enjoy that dynamic.

I probably wouldn’t have expected anything less of them; I expected them to be as good as they were because they are really, really empathetic people. For me, coming back in and racing, I think they’ve been what I needed them to be. There’s been an element of: this is a really big deal and I’m back and this is really special, but there’s also an element of expecting nothing less, and now we have a job to do.

At the Europeans just gone, I didn’t let any of the emotions come out until we’d finished racing, and then it all came out. I think that’s the athlete mentality: you have the ability to compartmentalise, but also the ability to celebrate and share the moment. I know my teammates were right there with me and that was amazing. I’m very, very grateful to them for sticking with me and believing in me.

What are the next steps?

I definitely want to continue using my platform to keep sharing and keep talking about cancer and particularly the benefits of exercise around it and showing what is possible.

We all talk about athletes having transferable skills; I never thought I’d be tapping into those to get through a cancer diagnosis in my 20s. But it just goes to show how what you practice every day as an athlete can be transferred into other areas.I think I’d like to continue to use my voice in the world of cancer and keep trying to take lessons from one and merge that into the other and help people as they go through it. Breast cancer hits one in seven women in their lifetime, which is a staggering number, and it is a treatable disease a lot of the time if it’s caught early.

I feel like I’ve definitely got a far broader and deeper perspective on both what I enjoy but also the power of sport and the power of the athlete and how that can help others.

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Erin Kennedy: Why I shared my cancer recovery journey

Erin Kennedy's story is an inspirational tale of helping others during her own challenges.
July 8, 2024
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