Anne Royters has terminal cancer but that hasn’t stopped her from clocking up thousands of kilometres riding, kayaking and bushwalking.
The 61-year-old mother of two to Mark, 27 and Michelle, 25, was diagnosed with stage 4b ovarian cancer on Christmas Eve 2019. The diagnosis followed months of back and loin pain.
She was initially diagnosed with a blocked ureter after going to the emergency department but felt that “something more sinister” was wrong. She spoke to her neurologist, who helps treat the autonomic neuropathy Anne was diagnosed with when she was 49.
“It was my wonderful neurologist, Dr Judith Spies from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital who sent me for a PET scan in December 2019,” Anne explained. “Like me, she was not happy with my situation – I feel I owe my life to her.”
The PET scan showed she had cancer and it had spread to her liver, lungs and other areas, as well as compressing her ureter. Anne was told that if the chemotherapy didn’t work, she would only have six weeks to live.
“Strangely enough, I didn’t cry,” Anne said. “I’ve always thought ‘why not me?’ rather than ‘why me?’, because cancer can happen to anyone. I just thought, I’ve got to do the best that I can.”
Because Anne’s cancer was so widespread, her treatment started almost immediately. Two days after Christmas, she had a port-a-cath installed in her chest to administer chemotherapy, followed by more anaesthetic procedures. She started chemotherapy on 20 January.
“You go from being a person with a normal life to being in the world of the chronically ill, surrounded by doctors, appointments and procedures,” Anne said.
An avid cyclist who loves being in nature, Anne discovered that riding helped her manage the chemotherapy side-effects.
“After my first dose of chemotherapy I had a lot of pain in my legs. I couldn’t really walk, so I asked my husband Tony to help me onto my bicycle,” she said. “I then found that cycling reduced the pain in my legs, so I have continued cycling regularly since then.”
Anne, who lives at Lake Illawarra, was told she was not a candidate for surgery because of how widely the cancer had spread.
“But they hadn’t met me then, they didn’t know how strong and determined I am,” Anne said. “After meeting Doctor Rhonda Farrell, gynaecological oncologist from Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, she determined that I could manage major surgeries.”
Three surgeons from Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, including Doctor Farrell, operated laparoscopically on Anne for eight hours. The surgery included partial liver resection, radical hysterectomy, removal of the omentum and peritoneal tumours, ureteric resection and a psoas hitch.
“I was in intensive care for two days after surgery. I kept up my part of the bargain by getting up and walking the next day, by day three I was walking up to 1km each day. I knew I had to help myself and I knew it was really important to keep moving,” Anne said.
Two months after her surgery, Anne was back on her bike, doing what she loved.
“I’ve always loved the outdoors, nature and exercise, particularly cycling, kayaking, swimming, tennis, bushwalking and snorkelling and we love to go camping,” Anne said.
Since starting chemotherapy 18 months ago, Anne has cycled more than 4,000km and kayaked 1,020km.
On a rollercoaster ride
Anne describes cancer as “a rollercoaster”. In February 2021, she took a five-week break from chemotherapy to camp, bushwalk, kayak and cycle with her husband and children and their friends in Tasmania.
“Unfortunately, after only a few weeks away I was too unwell, in too much pain and could no longer eat. I went to hospital in Tasmania and it turned out I had a blocked bile duct. We had to immediately fly home for admission to Wollongong Public Hospital,” Anne said.
Back home, Anne had a metal stent inserted into her bile duct, which had become blocked due to the cancer. This was followed by acute pancreatitis. Further PET scans confirmed that the cancer was spreading.
“An issue I have had throughout chemotherapy are low blood counts, which frustratingly results in me being unable to receive all doses of chemotherapy to fight the cancer beast,” she said.
Grateful for so much support
Throughout her “cancer rollercoaster”, Anne has stayed positive and focused on the future, which she says is thanks to the support of her family, friends and the wider community.
“My direct and broader family plus friends have been an incredible support to me,” she said.
From strangers paying for her meal, to a Turkish Muslim family driving from Sydney to teach her how to tie her scarf after she lost her hair, Anne has been touched by the kindness that people have shown her.
“I’ve had some strangers do some incredible things and I’ve continued to stay in touch with many of them,” Anne said.
When Anne saw Cancer Council’s Ride500 challenge, she decided it was the perfect way to help others while staying active.
“I love being out on my bike. When I saw Ride500 I thought this is right up my alley – I want to cycle more kilometres while I can,” Anne said.
“I have a huge appreciation for life and I want to live as if I’m living, not dying. I do have terminal cancer, but I want to try and help other people.”
At the time of writing, Anne has raised an incredible $11,456 to support people affected by cancer.
“My mind’s been blown because a lot of people have already donated to Cancer Council to support me on this ride. It nearly makes me cry!” she said.
Anne is continuing to get on her bike at every opportunity, and is well on her way to cycling 500km for Ride500, strongly supported by her husband Tony and her friends.
“I’m at a point at the moment where I am still trying chemotherapy at smaller doses and I’m still keeping strong with exercise and healthy food,” she said.
“This last week I have been in the Wollongong Public Hospital oncology ward with an acute pain flare up. My oncologist Dr Lorraine Chantrill and all the staff in the oncology ward have cared so well for me and gotten my pain management under control again so I can continue riding.
“The nursing staff and doctors in the chemotherapy outpatients unit also at Wollongong Hospital are equally fabulous in caring for me very well when I go there for chemotherapy infusions, which helps keep me strong and positive.
“It’s really important with any health condition to try and keep physically fit and healthy if you can and do the things you love, although I don’t think you have to beat yourself up about it.
“Try and eat a healthy diet and exercise. Be your own advocate. If something doesn’t feel right there’s a good possibility it’s not right, so be prepared to question it.
“Just embrace life the best you can. Be forgiving to others and be kind to yourself.”