8th October 2020

Andy McKay: Cycling with lung cancer and brain mets

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In the early days of his diagnosis, Andy could barely walk. He could, however, still cycle and so with a little help got back on the bike. Three years later, he’s built himself back up and proudly achieved his own cycling challenge two years in a row. He’s now encouraging others to get in the saddle.

“I took up cycling about 6 or 7 years ago. I’d played quite a bit of football in my 30s but had to stop playing as I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my hips. I was told by a doctor that I should quit running around and do either cycling or swimming. I swim like a stone, so I started cycling. I started off with a mile or two cycles near my house then built up to 10 or 20 miles with my longest cycle around 30 miles. It’s not that big in cycling terms, but I felt a sense of achievement.

Then, in August 2017, everything changed. I was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and brain metastases. Actually, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and then the next day was told it was caused by lung cancer. They were probably the worst two days of my life.

In the lead up to the diagnosis, I had been getting strange headaches as well as feeling a bit dizzy and off-balance. Things got so bad that I was referred to a specialist. By the time I got the results, I couldn’t walk because a tumour was pressing against my spinal column in my brain which was stopping the ‘walk’ instruction getting from my brain to my legs.

I still felt strong though, so I asked the doctors if I could get on an exercise bike. I got taken in a wheelchair to the gym and helped on an exercise bike and did about 5 minutes. I was so relieved. It was a small taste of normal at a very turbulent time!

After I got out of hospital, I bought myself a turbo trainer which is a frame which converts a normal bike into an exercise bike. I went on it every night as part of my recovery. I just felt so much better getting the blood pumping again, even if it was for just 10 minutes at a time.

About six weeks after getting out of hospital, I tried going out on my bike again. I was pretty wobbly at first, but I was determined to do it. I was sensible about it. I always went out with someone and stayed off the roads until I got my balance back.

I continued to build up my distances and then set myself a personal challenge of cycling 300 miles in a month – more than I’d done even before my diagnosis – and I did that in September 2019. I was very proud! 

In February 2020, I had a lobectomy to further slow the progress of my cancer. Getting back into cycling after the lobectomy was really challenging. I went from being able to cycle for about 3 hours to just about managing 10 minutes. It was pretty much starting from scratch. But again, I used my turbo trainer to build up my stamina and was back on the cycle paths three months later.  I built up my strength again and set myself a stretch target of 300 miles again in a month which I managed to do in September again.

I get out of breath quicker than my cycling partners because of my lower lung capacity. The drug I am on also has a detrimental effect on my aerobic performance. It lowers my heart rate and makes my muscles sore and weaker. I will never fully get my breath back but all that training and pushing my limits has got me back in a pretty good position breath wise. 

There’s also a mental battle to try and overcome. When I am on a tough cycle or hard climb, I start to feel sorry for myself. I have a bit of a cancer downer and have to kick myself back to positivity. 

Cycling makes me feel alive again. You don’t half feel near death with cancer, and I could easily mope around and feel sorry for myself, but when I exercise, I feel alive. I love being outdoors and seeing parts of the countryside that I would never be able to see otherwise. There is nothing like getting caught out on a bike in a thunderstorm too to make you feel alive.