I went on an 80-mile hike with the man who saved my life
I am only 4ft 2in, I knew it would be a big challenge.
Arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the end point of my trek in northwest Spain, was an extremely emotional experience
I was filled with an overwhelming sense of achievement.
This journey, an incredible 80 miles over six days, hadn’t only been a physical one.
It was also an extremely personal feat – and testament to myself. Having been born with achondroplasia, I am only 4ft 2in and when I signed up, I knew the long pilgrimage would be a big challenge.
But, having also been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 49, I knew I could overcome the odds. Having finished the trek, I had shown that once again.
As soon as my dad, a doctor, saw my short limbs and bigger skull when I was born, he knew that I had achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism.
I was born in India and my parents, aware that it could be difficult for me growing up there with a disability, decided to move to the UK when I was three.
In England, they felt I’d have the same opportunities as my two older brothers – and my younger one, when he arrived after the move.
They made various adaptations around our house – keeping steps in every room and having light pulls, rather than switches – and although I was aware of my condition, it didn’t bother me.
I had good friends, as a youngster my mum made all of my clothes, and it was only once in a blue moon I was stared at in the street.
It wasn’t until I was teenager, when my friends started getting their first boyfriends and going shopping for new clothes, that I realised just how different I was.
Still though, I carried on with my studies and moved into the halls of residence when I started my degree in maths and computer science at Salford University.
It was a steep learning curve, learning how to live alone and cook for myself, but the girls on my floor were so lovely, we had a great time.
I left school and built a career in IT. It was through work I met Eddie, who quickly became a good friend. In May 2015, he started mentioning about having a bad back.
It turned out he had cancer of the spine. Just as his treatment was completed, he developed pneumonia and he sadly passed away in November. It was devastating.
Eddie was the first person I knew to have died from cancer and I was determined to do something in his honour. The best place to start, I thought, was with myself.
I started checking my breasts and, in December 2015, I felt a lump in my right one. ‘Maybe I’m just paranoid,’ I reasoned. Still, I made an appointment with my GP.
When they confirmed they could feel something too, I got an appointment the next day with consultant, Mr Lester Barr, through my work health insurance. ‘I might be wasting your time,’ I told him, explaining I’d had a friend recently pass away.
He gave me an ultrasound, mammogram and a biopsy and told me to come back the next day for my results.
It was then he diagnosed me with stage three breast cancer. ‘How am I going to tell my parents?’ I thought immediately. They were elderly, this news was going to break their hearts.
The following day, my eldest brother, also a doctor, came with me and I told them as gently as I could. They were devastated and many tears were shed.
The next week, I was given my treatment plan.
I was to start off with six rounds of chemotherapy. It’s just as bad as everyone says it is. Constantly nauseous and lethargic, I could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t face food but knew I needed to build up my strength for the next session.
After my third round, my hair had started to fall out, so I asked my hairdresser to shave it off. Knowing it would grow back, it didn’t feel too upsetting. In fact, as I looked in the mirror, I actually quite liked it.
Never once did I question, why me? I wouldn’t wish this awful disease upon anyone else.
After the chemotherapy, a scan showed my tumour had gone. Still though, Mr Barr arranged for me to have a lumpectomy and, in the tissue they removed, they found cancerous cells.
‘I’d recommend a mastectomy,’ he said. ‘Then before we do a reconstruction, you’ll need a course of radiotherapy.’
That was the news that hit me hardest.
I left his room sobbing. I just couldn’t imagine how I’d look or feel with only one breast. ‘It’s not an option for you not to have this done,’ my eldest brother said gently.
Still though, in July 2016, I was terrified as I went in for the operation. Luckily, when I woke up and took off the bandages, it wasn’t half as bad as I’d imagined.
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I had 15 sessions of radiotherapy and, finally, in April 2018, I had my reconstruction surgery called a diep – reconstruction using the tissue from my stomach. My surgeon told me I was the first person with achondroplasia to have a diep.
Before that though, I’d started working with Mr Barr’s charity, Prevent Breast Cancer. They had been there for me if I had needed to talk to anyone, if I wanted advice on wigs and other cancer related issues. I wanted to give back.
In 2017, they asked if I would take part in a catwalk fundraising show. To be asked to be a model in my 50s? How could I resist? It was a great day.
I volunteered on other fundraising days and worked with another two women on a cookery book called More Than A Manchester Tart.
A number of years ago I saw some programmes on celebrities doing pilgrimages and I then fell in love with the Camino and I wanted to try it. I didn’t know how, why or when but it something that interested me
Then at the end of 2022, Prevent Breast Cancer advertised a fundraising event of walking 80 miles of the Camino. Unlike some people with my condition, I’ve never needed a wheelchair but I was not a natural walker – certainly not a long-distance one.
But I wanted to attempt it.
In October 2023, I set off on the trek with a friend from university, Mr Lester Barr and 18 other people connected to the charity. Physically, it was incredibly tough – my feet were covered in blisters and I ached all over.
But emotionally and mentally, it was amazing. I’ve lost both of my parents in the last couple of years and the trek gave me the time and space to start processing my grief, as well as coming to terms with what I had been through myself.
It wasn’t physically possible for me to complete each day. I did what I could and then took a taxi to the hotel where the group were staying that night.
On the sixth and final day the plan was for all of us to walk to the square outside the Santiago de Compostela. For this to happen I took a taxi to 9 kilometres from the end and walked with my guide for 8 kilometres.
We then waited for the rest of the group to join us. I then walked the last kilometre with Lester Barr.
Reaching the cathedral with the man who helped save my life, was an extremely poignant moment.
Now I’ve just returned and am still physically recovering.
But I know that while my aches and pains will soon fade, that experience will stay with me forever.
As told to Sarah Whiteley
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