Norma’s story in surviving cancer scare

Life did not always look quite so positive for Norma MacLeod. Today she’s synonymous with what’s surely the fastest growing sport and pastime in the islands – that of wild swimming – through her business venture Immerse Hebrides.
Norma now enjoys a very active outdoor lifestyle with her business venture, Immerse Hebrides.Norma now enjoys a very active outdoor lifestyle with her business venture, Immerse Hebrides.
Norma now enjoys a very active outdoor lifestyle with her business venture, Immerse Hebrides.

A talented swimmer in her youth, she re-connected with the sport in later years and like so many other converts to the reinvigorating properties that come with a dip in the icy, cold sea, decided to become something of an ambassador – and, in fact, a lot more than that, to turn it into a full-time job.

She was in the process of leaving a successful career in nursing to set up Immerse Hebrides – to follow her personal passion – when life took one of those nasty turns that spins your very existence on its axis. At the age of 44 she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The mum of two had a benign (non-cancerous) cyst in the same area 15 years previously. So, she wasn’t too concerned at first about the discovery and the fact that it coincided with the start of the Covid pandemic in April 2020, meant that she put off getting it checked out. Fortunately, though, not for too long.

Norma said: “I was about to leave my full-time nursing job to launch my outdoor swimming business and was part of the team establishing an intensive care unit at the local hospital to deal with Covid. Everything was chaos at that time and I really did think it was a cyst, so I didn’t get it checked.

“Then in July, I literally woke up and thought: ‘what am I doing?’. But it had been a surreal time with everything on hold. I got a GP appointment within days and a week later I was in Inverness at Raigmore Hospital getting a biopsy.

“Two weeks later I was told that the consultant wanted to see me. I remember saying ‘just tell me now, I don’t need to go to Inverness’, and my diagnosis was confirmed.

“I fell through the floor for about five minutes, but I did regain myself. You do catastrophise but I think that’s only natural.

"I suppose you go into heightened fight or flight mode and looking back I was just living on adrenaline, asking what was next, not really questioning anything. I was told it would be curable and I really held onto that.

“Because of lockdown, I didn’t really know where to go for peer support but I found the charity Breast Cancer Now – they had so much information online and so many forums of people going through a similar thing, it helped me in those early days.”

Three weeks later, Norma underwent a lumpectomy (an operation to remove the cancer) and the removal of two nodes to check the cancer had not spread. Results showed that no further surgery was required.

That was the first bit of good news, but the road to recovery was still long and challenging. But with the help and guidance of MacMillan Nurses, it was successfully negotiated… eventually.

Norma underwent six rounds of chemotherapy in Stornoway, starting in October, and then travelled to Inverness for three weeks of radiotherapy, with her treatment finishing in March 2021 – exactly two years ago.

“Chemo was really hard," Norma says. “I know it’s lifesaving treatment but I think I had every side effect I was warned about.

"I’m very glad that’s behind me. I know others who didn’t have as many side effects as me but it really knocked the socks off me.

"As my treatment was during the pandemic my husband was really my only support as we were sticking to the rules, which was hard for both of us.

“As soon as I recovered from each chemo session, I needed out of the house immediately. Being an active person going into this, and knowing you’re not going to be able to do the exact same things you used to do, was difficult.

"I watched wildlife programmes to get my outdoor fix and as soon as I had the strength to move, my first thoughts were to get to the sea.

"Even if I couldn’t swim, I’d sit at the water’s edge and let the waves come over me. It made me feel like me again, not just a cancer patient.”

A month after her radiotherapy, Norma returned to work as she had a busy summer season booked with her new outdoor swimming business. But after the summer, she hit a wall, as she describes herself, and took time out, slowly building herself back both mentally and physically. It was a clear sign that there was still some way to go.

“I was probably being a bit of an optimist going back to work so early and I struggled that summer,” she said. “The business had really taken off after lockdown and the reality of what I’d been through hit me.

“Cancer changes you mentally - not your personality, but your thought processes. I wasn’t myself for a year after radiotherapy but I’m slowly coming back to the person I was and am starting to recognise myself again.”

Norma is now checked annually and is on Tamoxifen – a hormone therapy used to lower the risk of breast cancer returning.

Speaking about life now, she said: “Being self-employed, you’re always pushing yourself, but I’ve made a point of being much better at looking after myself, switching off and taking time to realise I’m actually okay.

"I’m not back doing the triathlons and long swims I was before my diagnosis, but I’m definitely thinking about it now.

“Rather than planning ahead, I live life day to day now – it works for me, and I quite like it. Although work is busy I make time to look after myself, go on holiday at a moment’s notice and focus on living well.”

National campaign for early diagnosis

The reason Norma is now sharing her own experience of her cancer journey is to support a national campaign to encourage people to get tested if they detect any problems.

She is well aware there will be many others in a similar boat to herself, having had a cancer – and there will be those, too, who have been far less fortunate.

The ‘Be the Early Bird’ campaign reinforces the benefits of early diagnosis as that’s the time when there’s more treatment options available and as a result there is a greater likelihood of living well after treatment – and, of course, of giving better news to tell the family.

The campaign is particularly aimed at those aged 40 and over, and urges everyone with persistent symptoms, which are unusual for them, to contact their GP practice without delay. The symptoms could include unexplained bleeding, unusual lumps, unexplained weight loss or something that doesn’t feel normal.

Ross MacDuff, Joint National Clinical Lead for Earlier Cancer Diagnosis at the national Centre for Sustainable Delivery (CfSD) said: “Finding cancer in its earliest stages is really key to maximising treatment options.

"That’s why it’s so important that anyone who is experiencing persistent symptoms that are unusual for them contacts their GP practice so they can be assessed as soon as possible and referred, if appropriate, to the correct specialist.

“Whether it is you that has possible symptoms, a family member or friend, please don’t put off making an appointment with your GP practice. If cancer is confirmed earlier, a much wider range of treatment options can be available, and the body can respond better to treatment.”

NHS Western Isles also shared the stories of another two islanders in a bid to promote the national campaign and general awareness of the need to get tested early if a problem is detected. Their full names were withheld, but again it simply serves to highlight that when caught early, the progonsis of cancer is often postive.

Fiona said: “I noticed something was wrong during a routine breast self-examination. It wasn't a lump, just a mark that didn't look right.

"I went to my GP who referred me and had my first appointment within a month confirming a breast cancer diagnosis. I had surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy all within six months. I count myself very lucky that the cancer was caught early before it had a chance to spread.

"I have been free of cancer now for 13 years and that early diagnosis and quick treatment programme ensured a successful outcome for me. I would encourage anyone who sees anything they are not sure of to go and see your doctor straight away, an early diagnosis increases the chances of a very successful outcome.”

Another local resident, Kathryn, commented: “I had mild symptoms which I wrote off as being a continuation of previous complaints and (against medical advice) I wanted to put off having a screening test until I had got my holidays out of the way.

"However, at that point the national bowel screening kit came through the door. Assuming it would be fine, I did the test immediately. This was very fortunate indeed as the result was positive and after further tests, I had a major operation for bowel cancer.

"I was told that my cancer had been found very early – which matters hugely as the chances of survival are far greater the sooner it is found (something I had not been aware of before.) I would thoroughly recommend that everyone does the test as soon as they get it. The modern tests are straightforward and clean to do – and could save your life.”

As well as contacting your GP without delay there is a website where people can find out more about possible cancer symptoms:

And perhaps we should leave the last word on it to Norma.

“If you find a lump, don’t wait,” she said. “Take no chances.

"Until I suddenly woke up that day, I was taking a chance each day with my life, and it could have been so much worse for me.

“It’s not easy to hear the word cancer but it’s better to know where you stand and what can be done to treat it, rather than brushing it under the carpet.”