Interview by Kristin Frauenhoffer
It was difficult to reach Abby. The two last weeks she was out of signal a lot. Only once in a while I received a message saying “I will answer soon, once I am back in the civilized world again”. The 32- year-old British Abby Popplestone is doing a bike-packing trip, cycling 1200 miles and crossing the UK from John O´Groats to Lands End. And she is taking the hard route through wild and remote terrain, with everything she needs strapped to her bike. She is doing this solo and unsupported, sleeping in her tent and “eating cold beans out of a tin” as she says. I had the chance to get some answers as to why she is throwing herself in such a crazy adventure. Because her story is not only a happy one…
Abby, your trip sounds very adventurous. Why are you doing this?
I am doing this because last year during lock down I discovered that I had a rare form of ovarian cancer and I am now fine. And I wanted to raise awareness of symptoms and raise money for “Ovarian Cancer Action” who are a leading charity for funding research to creating screening tests for the disease.
Why cycling? How did you get the idea?
I am not a cyclist. I am actually very new to cycling. In lockdown I started cycling as a way to stay fit and healthy and have something to do. So I decided to cycle the same miles from John o´Groats to Lands end in my area. And I got 300 miles into the local adventure and that is when I discovered I had my tumor and I needed an urgent surgery. So to celebrate being alive and having another chance at life I wanted to do the trip for real.
You are saying that now you are fine and cured from the cancer. But what were your thought when you found out about your diagnosis?
When I found out that I had a tumor I was pretty scared. Until they did the surgery they could not tell if the tumor was a metastasic kind which means it had spread to other areas. And so I was scared because I had suddenly realized the terrible prognosis that ovarian cancer has. Only 43 percent of people will survive 5 years and only 35 percent will survive 10 years. To be met with those statistics was incredibly frightening and I was very lucky that my tumor had not spread to any other organs. They were able to take it out in one complete go and I should now be fine.
With your trip, you want to raise awareness of ovarian cancer and raise money for Ovarian Cancer Action, which conducts research into this cancer…
It is incredibly important to do more research around ovarian cancer because it is a cancer that has not changed in the last 30 years, whilst you have got cervical cancer and breast cancer which are very well publicized. The symptoms are described often and there has been a lot of investment in terms of creating a screen test to discover the disease early on. So you have got mammograms for breast cancer and you have got a smear test for cervical. Nothing like that exists for ovarian cancer which means that it gets diagnosed in the very late stages which is why the prognosis is so terrible. So the research is crucial because we need to find a test for ovarian cancer which means that we can then get the signs of the disease far earlier.
How do you feel now? Do you live your life differently?
Yes, I live my life completely differently. I think before I was living in a state of procrastination. I was putting a lot of things off just because I thought “oh, I will do that another day, there will be another time to do that.” And then suddenly when I was faced with the possibility that I could be dead in 5 years, it suddenly brought into focus just how fragile life is and how time can be taken away from you in a moment. And so it really made me start to think about how I am living my life and trying to prioritize things that are important and just to get on with them and do them. Something I can do today, I now will do today rather then trying to leave until tomorrow.
Like this trip. How did you prepare for it?
I all honesty I have done very little preparation for this trip. It sounds crazy but I think I needed to not think too much about it. Because it is so big that I may have scared myself. The kind of preparations I did were to look at what I needed to get for my bike so I borrowed some kits. That means I can fix all of my belongings on to my bike like bags and straps and things like that. And then the second thing I thought was important is safety. So I have borrowed a garmin inreach explorer which is a device where I can press SOS and the emergency services can find me wherever I am even if I am out of signal, because it works on satellite. I didn´t do much physical training. I went to the gym 4 times and I cycled my bike a little bit but I had never done an overnight trip on my bike before ever. So I really didn´t do much preparation.
Where are you now?
I have covered just over 300 miles which is quite a poignant amount of miles actually because this is the point when I discovered the tumor when I was doing the cycle trip around my hometown during lockdown. So this feels like quite a poignant moment in the trip. I have cycled through all of the highlands and had made it down to Loch Ossian when a really really bad storm was coming in. So I decided to get the train to Glasgow. I am now in Glasgow, missed out on about 100 miles of the route. But that is fine, I am happy with that because I felt like it was much safer. And above all I want to enjoy the experience. I have been cycling in some really bad weather, very strong winds, lots of rain and it was pretty brutal and I didn´t feel like I wanted to cycle in even worse weather.
Besides the weather how has the journey been for you so far?
The journey has been incredible so far. It has been really hard, I have never done anything like this before. I didn´t know what to expect what my body was capable of or wheather I could do it. But here I am, 300 miles in, I have climbed a 1000 meters, I have been all off-road on a very unstable ground through bugs, through storm, through sunshine and I have done it and I am really proud of myself.
Do you have a lesson learnt already that you would like to share?
Something I have really learnt is that you can do hard things if you push yourself and if you just stick with it, putting one foot in front of the other and then eventually you will make it. I felt like giving up many times already but I just kept pushing on. And sometimes when I thought about the trip in total – 1200 miles is a very long way – It felt like too much, too big, too crazy. So instead I break it down into days and sometimes even hours and minutes when I am finding it hard. So at times when I am thinking “Oh I am finding it really hard today” I tell myself: Forget about tomorrow. All you have to do is get to where you are staying tonight. Or all you need to do is get to the top of that hill and we will think about the rest then. Don´t think about anything else, just focus on taking the next step. And then the next step and the next step. And that has really helped me to get through the really tough times.
It is about connection to myself.
The other thing I have realized is how incredible human beings are. Every single day I have met people through complete chance who have been so incredibly kind to me. They have helped me a lot and we have just had wonderful conversation. For me that is such a big part of this trip, because it is about connection. It´s about connection to myself, about connection to nature but also connection to other people. The media are so full of negative stories about how we don´t care about each other or how people are acting selfishly, especially now because of covid. This trip has really redressed that balance for me in my mind through the experiences with people I have met. It reminds me that the world is full of good people who want to help complete strangers and I am so grateful for people who have shown me kindness, given me food, great conversation, who have encouraged me, who have given me a lift or a place to stay overnight. And it is just so humbling and heartwarming to experience true human connection, it is fantastic.
If you want to help Abby and support her on her mission, click here to get to her fundraising-page.
This article is copyright protected.