In 2014 Discovery Health member Chantel Rall completed her first full Ironman triathlon. But what makes her fitness journey remarkable is that just two years prior, she had cervical cancer.
Sitting in the doctor’s rooms in April 2012, 34-year-old Chantel Rall heard the words that she had been dreading, “You have cervical cancer.” Fast-forward just 26 months though, Chantel had not only fully recovered, but she had also completed her first full Ironman triathlon. Here’s how she did it.
“It all started with a quick visit to my doctor for my yearly check up. I hadn’t been for a couple of years, so I made an appointment and then carried on with life, not thinking much more about it,” Chantel starts off by saying.
A few days later, she got a phone call that would end up changing her life. Her results were abnormal and she needed to have a procedure called, Lletz biopsy, where a small sample of cervical tissue is taken for testing.
“When my doctor called me back for an ‘urgent meeting,’ I knew it couldn’t be good news,” Chantel recalls. “When he told me I had cervical cancer, I remember feeling shocked, horrified, and alone. Oncologists can come across as pretty ruthless. Their first priority is to get rid of the cancer and stop at nothing to do this so – I was grateful to have the support of my mother throughout it all.”
The decision was made that Chantel needed to have a Radical Hysterectomy. “Even the name terrified me. But more than that, I just kept thinking that this couldn’t be happening to me, I was too young at 32.”
The road to recovery for Chantel started with sonar scans, x-rays, blood tests, and a heart check to ensure that she was strong enough to cope with the chemotherapy and radiation. Luckily for Chantel, these treatments were not necessary following her operation. “I managed to find the best gynaecologist oncologist in South Africa and I kept repeating what became my recovery mantra: It is what it is. I’ll be fine.”
“Looking back, the sadness that I felt wasn’t because of the cancer diagnosis. I felt positive enough throughout it all that I would end up beating it. My devastation was due to the realisation that I would never be able to have my own children.” Hearing everyone reassure her that it was ‘all going to be okay’ wasn’t much help to Chantel.
There were days when I wanted to shout back: No it won’t! I can’t have kids!”
The first two days after her hysterectomy were hazy, but slowly Chantel started to recover. “It was all about small steps. Walking again. Going to the bathroom unaided. Lots went wrong, but I got through it. I refused to think about dying; only living and that meant being active and keeping healthy.”
Having been very active to not being able to move much for six weeks was challenging for Chantel. “I couldn’t bear being stuck in bed while the world went on without me,” she says. “But friends, family, my Virgin Active colleagues and my doctor all gave me the courage to be patient.
So, what made Chantel aim to compete in one of the most gruelling triathlon events on the sports calendar?
I’d always wanted to do an Ironman ultra event, however, I never really had the motivation. When I found out about my diagnosis it dawned on me that perhaps I didn’t have as much time as I’d always thought. No one does. I needed to make a positive change and I had to live every second of my life to the full.
For even the elite sportsperson, Ironman events are not for the faint hearted. The Ironman 70.3 involves a 1.8km sea swim, 90km cycle, and 21.1km run, while the ultra consists of a 3.8km sea swim, 180km cycle, and 42.2km run. “No matter how exhausted I was from a long day at work, I did my best to muster up all the willpower I had and still train. I found that with exercise I became less stressed. By sweating out the day’s worries, exercise helped me feel happier. I got better at handling life’s day-to-day stressors.”
What’s next for Chantel? “Lots! You’ll find me at triathlons, mountain biking events, marathons, open water swim events, and cycle races … I am confident and ready to take on anything!”