Thirty-one-year-old Tori Coles, from Newport on the Isle of Wight, has always excelled at sport. But in 2015 she found herself part of a club she ‘had never wanted to join’, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Fitness has always been Tori’s life. As a teenager she played netball to a high standard and after achieving a degree in Sports Therapy she secured her first job at a sports therapist for the Wightlink Raiders ice hockey team. A few months later, she set up an injury clinic in Wootton. She began building her practice and worked at high profile sports events – including the 2012 Olympics. In her free time, she was playing touch rugby for local teams as well as swimming and working out in the gym.
By 2015 she was ready for the next big step in her career, and in June launched her own gym, Wight Fit. However, within ten days of its opening, she was facing an unexpected health crisis.
With her new business less than a fortnight old, Tori found herself in A&E with pain and swelling in her legs which she assumed was an injury from all her exercising.
Tests, however, revealed a deep vein thrombosis – something that’s usually associated with inactivity and obesity rather than a super-active lifestyle – and she left the hospital on crutches, with a prescription for blood thinners.
“It was an incredible shock, particularly as I was so fit and healthy,” she says.
Further tests revealed a genetic blood disorder was causing the clotting, and by October it became apparent that Victoria had a major hormone imbalance, and she had developed a breast lump.
As well as getting her head around her cancer diagnosis and facing treatments, Tori, started to think about the future, and wondered if she would ever be able to have children.
Because the cancer was so advanced and quite aggressive, there was no time to freeze any of her eggs, so she became one of the first patients to undergo a groundbreaking procedure at the Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton, to remove and freeze one of her ovaries for possible future use.
With the ovary safely preserved, Tori started her first round of chemotherapy, which continued every three weeks for seven months. This was followed by a lumpectomy and then 25 daily sessions of radiotherapy.
During that time, the team at her fledgling gym business kept things running, with Tori going in whenever she felt well. Incredibly, she still managed to go out on 10k runs.
Tori was told she had been successfully treated, but discovered there were longer-lasting after-effects which she describes as her ‘dodgy heart, osteopenia and weight gain, as well as being dependent on an array of medications.”
She kept focussed though, keeping herself as healthy as possible, whilst building her business and raising funds for Wessex Cancer Trust, which had supported her through her cancer treatment. Tori regularly used the Daisy Bus to get to her hospital appointments in Southampton and other support services.
In 2017, her determination to put her mind in another zone saw her take on the London Marathon and after that she decided to take on the herculean challenge of completing a marathon a month for 12 months with her brother, Anthony, who had been a huge support throughout her cancer diagnosis and treatment. In all she’s raised over £7,500 to help other local families living with cancer.
Tori always hoped that one day she would be able to have children, even if it had to be achieved ‘a longer way around’ than for most people. So we were delighted to hear that Tori and her partner, Aaron, were able to conceive naturally and have recently welcomed a daughter, Lily Mae to the world.
It’s clear that Tori’s love of fitness has played a huge role in her recovery. But what thoughts and feelings has she experienced along the way? At Wessex Cancer Trust, we know that everyone’s journey through cancer is different. As well as the physical changes cancer takes you through, there can be a myriad of emotions. Not least, in Tori’s case, a feeling that your future may look very different to the one you imagined.
We caught up recently with Tori to find out about her emotional journey:
At the very first meeting with my oncologist and breast cancer nurse, I remember sitting there being told I had cancer and my initial response was: ‘Is it treatable? If so, let’s get on with it.’ I don’t think the ‘’cancer’’ aspect set in straight away. A week later when I was in hospital waiting for a fertility operation, by myself across the water in Southampton, it actually sunk in. I actually had cancer and this wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I would want my twenties to be! The whole cancer journey and recovery following treatment was a massive rollercoaster of emotions. Even now, five years on, there are good and bad days. A lot more good than bad, however! But yes, those feelings never have really gone away, and it does feel like I had those prime years of my late twenties robbed from me in the most ridiculous and unfair way. However, I’m alive and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. During treatment I was so focussed on getting to the next chemo session/surgery/radiotherapy sessions, alongside inpatient stays and A&E visits, as well as working, I didn’t really have time to think about things too much. It’s since treatment has finished, when every ache and pain makes you think cancer is returning, or when treatment fatigue catches up with you. It brings back all those feelings again. Two and half years ago I went to a post-cancer exercise retreat and it enabled me to reset my mind and somewhat close the chapter on cancer. Yes, I still had and still do have side effects of treatments, plus medications to take, but I decided to start living again, so now the bad days are few and far between!
It was always hard to express my feelings when they weren’t great feelings. How could I let my family, who were hurting already, and struggling watching the youngest one go through such gruelling treatment, know that I was struggling too? I stayed strong, not just for myself, but for them too, and that actually helped me massively. And I’m pretty sure it helped them too. My family supported me throughout, and I couldn’t have asked for more support during or after treatment. They were simply amazing. And they also knew if there were bad results I would be honest with them. But keeping a smile on my face kept a smile on theirs too, and the jokes that came with it lifted my spirits. Who couldn’t find being nicknamed ‘Fester’ during your bald stage by your big brother amusing!
I don’t think I had a strict life plan, but I had thought about the future – settling down, getting married and having a family. So it really did feel like a bomb had been put in the middle of it all and everything was thrown into the unknown. The fertility side did hit hard. I knew I wanted kids and so when my oncologist told me on day one that my fertility would be severely affected by treatment it was a massive shock. Because the tumour was so aggressive there wouldn’t be the chance for egg harvesting and I needed to start treatment straight away. Thankfully, I was sent to a fertility specialist where a new procedure had been passed that very morning, so I was given a glimmer of hope for a normal family life in the future.
I carried on working and exercising as much as I could throughout, and this helped me just to keep going. It was very much reduced, but even the odd bits here and there on good days massively helped. The main thing that helped though was keeping positive with a smile on my face! I may have looked and felt horrific, but a smile spreads, and receiving a smile back made me feel better.
Family no, friends yes! My family was amazing throughout and I couldn’t have asked for a better support team. However, I lost a lot of so-called friends along the way. They didn’t know how to treat me, what to say, or just couldn’t cope with it. It was upsetting, but since I’ve dealt with it I’ve realised it was their issue, not mine. Plus, I’ve met some incredible people along the way from ‘cancer circles’ who I happily call friends now.
I don’t think it’s changed me as a person as such. I’ve always been a person who gets on with it with a smile on my face, but it’s changed me in the sense of who I want in my life. I’m far pickier and less tolerant of people now. To those who let me down or just don’t bother I say good luck staying in my life! I’m excited about the future. Yes, I wish I hadn’t gone through cancer but it’s brought other people into my life, it’s made me realise how strong I can be, and it’s made me appreciate my family even more than I did before. Having watched friends with cancer not make it has made me just want to appreciate being alive. Life is for living and I’m gonna enjoy it as much as I possibly can!
Conceiving Lily Mae completely naturally and having a successful pregnancy after being told it would never happen is the most incredible feeling. We’re both here, safe and healthy. And I have the most beautiful, miracle bundle of pure bliss in my arms right now. What else could I possibly want in life? Throughout the pregnancy, and since birth, I’ve reflected a lot. But I’m still really excited for the future. Yes, there have been some blips, but who hasn’t had those, whether it’s cancer or something else? And if anything it’s just made me appreciate life and enjoy every single moment of it. My mantra is Carpe Diem – Seize the Day.