17 June, 2021

“We didn’t think anything like this would ever happen to us.”

The impact of breast cancer reaches beyond the people with the disease. In addition to the devastation caused to the person who is diagnosed, husbands, partners, children, and parents can be left wondering how to support their loved ones.

During the last year, with the Covid-19 pandemic, this has probably never been more true. Sadly, thousands of people will have received a diagnosis alone or had chemotherapy and radiotherapy appointments without the reassurance of a hand to hold.

But sometimes adversity can trigger a positive response. And that is exactly what happened for John Paxman when he started fundraising for Breast Cancer UK as a reaction to his wife Helen receiving the devastating news of a breast cancer diagnosis in late 2020.

Remembering the time, John said: “Around September, Helen noticed a slight change to the shape of her breast. By October it had progressed – so even though she couldn’t feel any lumps, she booked herself an appointment with the doctor straight away.”

John highlights the excellent care Helen received from the NHS throughout, and within a couple of weeks, Helen had an appointment with a specialist in the hospital breast unit. “Her appointment was at 9.30, and by 11.30 they’d diagnosed her with breast cancer, after taking biopsies. She phoned from the hospital and she was crying. We were devastated – we didn’t think anything like that would ever happen to us.”

After not being able to join Helen at the hospital for any of her appointments, by the time she started her chemotherapy, John admits to feeling a bit helpless. “I just felt I had to do something, so I decided to raise some money. Because of lockdown, I couldn’t go out anywhere, so I hit on the idea of doing the Three Peaks Challenge up and down our stairs. It sounds funny, but I needed to do something for myself too – it might even have been a way of letting out some anger. And to do that, you have to punish your body sometimes!”

The Three Peaks Challenge normally involves climbing the tallest mountains in Scotland, Wales, and England – a total of 3408 metres. For John, this translated into climbing up his 14 hallway stairs and back down again a huge 1,363 times.

The scale of the challenge quickly became clear to John. “On the second or third day, my calves had gone, and I thought ‘I’ve got problems here,’” he said. “But throughout the challenge, I was going online, going on Facebook, and putting a couple of videos up. The videos were pulling in lots of people – I had one that was viewed 500 times, so straight away I had lots of people coming back and giving me advice on what I should be doing for my calves. It felt like I really had a team behind me.”

John´s challenge coincided with the early stages of Helen’s chemotherapy treatment, and so John had to help his wife through some really hard moments: “In the end, Helen had two different types of chemo, and the second type did affect her. She was straight home and up to bed, which really isn’t like her.” But, despite it all, Helen’s positivity shone through: “Shortly after starting treatment, Helen was losing her hair. We bought a shaver and shaved it off together. She was so strong with it though. And although losing her hair was distressing, and she tried out different wigs – even blue and red – she’s now rocking the bald! In the end – she just said ‘do you know what, I actually feel quite comfortable like this.’”

This positivity meant that the couple’s love and support for each other went both ways. As John continued pounding up and down the stairs, he had extra motivation right on hand. “A lot of the time, Helen was in the bedroom shouting encouragement!” said John. “And this hasn’t just been about raising money, it’s raising awareness too. Right from the start, Helen started a private Facebook group called the Naughty Boob page, with information about how to look after yourself. It’s worked – we got told by someone that after reading her page, they went and got something checked out.”

The prevention message of Breast Cancer UK has really resonated with the couple too and led to other changes in their lives. John explained: “We looked into the food aspect of it. We’re eating healthier now, we’ve even got a little garden out the back now where we’re growing veggies and stuff – like pak choi, runner beans, pumpkins.”

John’s incredible indoor Three Peaks Challenge saw him take a whopping 19,082 steps, without leaving his hallway and raised an amazing £2725. Reflecting on his achievement, John said: “I actually enjoyed it! I was doing something like 130 climbs each time, which took about an hour each time. On the last day, it was so emotional. I was welling up – I just went.”

And although he’s modest about his achievement, John is really clear in his message for anyone reading this article: “I would encourage anyone to get involved and raise money for Breast Cancer UK, but also just talk about it and bring awareness to people. Once I started posting about it on Facebook, other people I know started talking about it and posting too – and all of a sudden it just took off.”

Helen returned to work recently. Her treatment continues with John by her side.

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