In early October, on the brink of retirement, Sharon Laws wrote a powerful personal statement in which she revealed she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. The 42-year-old British rider had begun chemotherapy three days before her announcement. Now three chemotherapy treatments into an eight-round regimen, Laws has settled into a new routine of sorts – one that includes tests and treatment, friends and family and, of course, cycling.
The Cancer Diagnosis
Laws had a biopsy in mid-August that identified "secondary cancer in the lymph nodes" in her neck. Over the following two months, Laws had a CT scan, a CT-PET scan, 2 MRI scans, a tonsillectomy, a tongue base biopsy, lymph nodes removed from her neck and pelvis, and two cervical biopsies.
"Initially they thought I had head and neck cancer because that was where the lymph nodes were first found," Laws explained. "It was only when I had the CT-PET scan that they found further infected lymph nodes in the pelvis and abdomen. Since head and neck cancer rarely spreads down, the focus shifted to searching for the primary tumour in the cervical region."
In September, five weeks after she was told she had cancer, Laws was diagnosed with stage IV cervical cancer.
"Spreading to lymph nodes in the neck is found in advanced cervical cancer," said Laws. "The histology from the biopsies in the lymph nodes in the neck and pelvis matched with that of the cancer cells in the cervix."
In her initial statement, Laws said her cancer is "treatable but not curable". A scan scheduled for Tuesday will gauge her cancer's response to the first three chemotherapy treatments.
"I think I'm dealing with the cancer and the diagnosis better than I might have thought I would be able to," said Laws. "I still have dark moments and teary times, but I guess that's normal. I'm trying to take each day as it comes. It tends to be when I think about the future that I struggle."
Laws is undergoing treatment in her native England. When she began her first round of chemotherapy in early October, doctors advised her to expect eight courses of chemotherapy over a four to six month period. Chemotherapy is meant to be every second Friday, but a low white blood cell count will push back treatments by at least one week.
"The chemotherapy is really not a nice experience," said Laws. "Over seven hours, I'm given position intravenously while stuck in a chair in a tiny room with six other people and three or four nurses.
"I feel pretty nauseous for five or so days after the treatment and have to take tablets for that," Laws added. "Eating is quite difficult as nothing seems appetizing. Even drinking plain water is tricky."
A Global Support Network
Laws admitted she felt like "the floor caved in" when she received her diagnosis.
"Everything I had planned and looked forward to was wiped away like chalk on the blackboard," Laws said. "I had a lot of plans for my retirement and was excited for a new chapter in my life. I thought this chapter would involve living in Girona, learning Spanish in South America, traveling, bike guiding, conservation work, relaxing, and enjoying more time with friends and family."
While Laws undoubtedly envisioned time with friends and family under entirely different circumstances, this unexpected chapter in her story has uncovered plenty of time to be filled and friends willing to fill it. Laws described a busier social life than she's had over her last nine years as a professional cyclist.
"I'm totally overwhelmed by the support – the messages, the gifts and the visitors," said Laws. "It's been absolutely incredible. I'm finding it quite hard to keep on top everything, but I'm so grateful for them all.
"As a cyclist, constantly on the road, I've not seen many of my close friends for years," Laws said. "I've been amazed at how far they have travelled to see me including from South Africa, the Shetland Islands, Australia via Belgium, Dover, Switzerland and London. The support from old teammates on the British National team and my trade teams has been amazing. Some people that I had lost touch with have been in contact, and that's meant a lot to me, too."
The most steadfast support has come closer to home. Laws moved into her mother's tiny one-bedroom flat in Bourton-on-the-Water before her treatment. The pair are a tight squeeze but have gotten a bit creative to make the living arrangement workable.
"Mum has turned her life upside down to support me," said Laws. "It wasn't something I doubted she'd do as she's always been there for me, but even so, it's humbling. She spent the first month sleeping on a camp bed and even now all her clothes are in boxes under the bed. Her kitchen has been taken over with nuts and seeds and my coffee machine and a nutribullet some friends gave to me. I don't know how I'll ever be able to repay her."
A New Reason to Ride
These days Laws considers a bike ride something akin to self-prescribed medicine. Her rides between treatments have helped her to fall in love with cycling again.
"I hadn't enjoyed training the last couple of years – perhaps because I didn't know why I wasn't riding at my previous level," noted Laws. "Now I can go out and enjoy the countryside with no pressure of having to do intervals or worry how fast or not I'm riding.
"Cycling now is my way of escaping, and it is definitely helping me get through this treatment process," Laws added. "There are days when I feel like going back to bed, but when I get out in the fresh air, even if I'm groveling along, I know I will still feel better when I get home."
Laws explained that her diagnosis and subsequent treatment has given her a slightly different perspective on her life. She notices that she is putting more weight on her connections than her achievements.
"I'm so grateful for all the people I have met and friends I have made during my varied life, particularly people from school, university, masters, many of my pervious jobs, and my cycling friends in Australia and South Africa," Laws said. "I've had a lot of time to reflect upon what these connections mean. It puts my few bike achievements way at the bottom of the list."
How To Help
Cyclingnews asked Laws if there were any ways the cycling community might be able to offer her help during her ordeal. She initially said that the messages she was receiving were plenty in terms of a show of support. Eventually she named two specific needs.
"I don't think there is much anyone can do to help unless someone can offer me a nice rural cottage in the Cotswolds and maybe a flexible job that fits in with chemotherapy," said Laws. "As from January, I won't have any income, which is a bit worrying."