Life after cancer: Grace’s story

Four years ago, in 2013 at the age of 68, Grace Holmes was diagnosed with lung cancer.

I first met Grace Holmes at the Macmillan Summer Wellbeing Day in June 2017; organised to support people living with or beyond cancer into activities. Grace had come along to try some of the activity sessions that were on offer that day, with hopes of also meeting new people. I remember meeting Grace; a lively lady, from South Africa, who was enthusiastically taking part in the Keep Fit taster session. It was only after the event that I learnt of Grace’s remarkable story of how her life has been enriched after cancer.

“I nearly passed out through shock. I had gone in for some tests and got the results. They said, ‘sit down Mrs Holmes we’ve got some bad news. You have lung cancer.’ The news alone makes you think you’re a goner, you’re finished,” says Grace.

Grace had smoked since the 1960’s.Although she had tried to give up before; it wasn’t until the diagnosis at Southmead hospital, that Grace finally made the decision to give up smoking for good.

“It’s so horrendous that news. The funny thing is; I went to the hospital alone. I didn’t expect news like that. Afterwards I got to the bus stop, and you know what I did? I sat down and smoked. I thought what’s the point? I’m done now. I’m done with this world, I’m finished”.  

“A week later they said they were going to cut [the cancer] out, they said ‘do you agree?’. I said, yes”.

In an unexpected twist, the shock of learning of her lung cancer changed Grace’s view of living.

“Just before my diagnosis I had got to the point where I’d had enough of human beings; I’m just going to stay inside. I started to want to be on my own and lock myself in. I remember standing out at the bus stop waiting for the bus thinking ‘I can’t wait to get home and lock myself in’.” 

The following day after Grace’s operation it was the support and advice of a nurse that gave Grace a meaning to go on. “The nurse came in and sat beside me on the bed and she said, ‘you’ve had the most dangerous operation Grace, you’re 69 and you’ve survived the operation’. She said, ‘if you don’t try and walk, she says that’s it’.”

“She said to me, ‘first of all you’ll find you can’t walk from here to there because you’ll be short of breath, because you only have the one lung, but if you exercise that lung so it learns to work on its own, you’ll make it.’”

“I remember every word she said. From the start I thought I was not going to make it through the operation. And now, I walk uphill, I walk downhill, I can’t believe when I tell people the story, they can’t believe I walk around after what I’ve been through.”

Little by little, with the help and support from local initiatives, such as the ACE project and LinkAge partner Bristol Charities, Grace started to engage with other people and activities in her local community. And she didn’t stop there. With the help of LinkAge partner Bristol Charities, Grace led the development of a new Ping Pong group in her local community centre.

“Before I knew it, it was taking off and getting off the ground. There we all were, starting off with just four of us and one table. We now have three tables with 12 members!”

“I couldn’t believe myself that I suddenly changed from just sitting. And here I am four years after and I’m playing ping pong, and I’m walking, and people would never think I have just one lung. I never miss my ping pong unless I’ve got another appointment. I’m always there”.

When asked what her thoughts were on being physically active after living with cancer, Grace responded, “Exercise is the best medicine, and laughter, it’s good for you, it’s good for the heart. You feel more alive, you feel happy. Sometimes when I get up I think, ‘I’ve got to go for a walk, I’m feeling a bit low and depressed’. I walk for about 30 minutes and I come back, and do you know how it makes me feel? It makes me feel like I’ve done something. It feels like I’ve done something big, it makes me so happy, you know, 30 minutes ago I was feeling so sad and now I’m happy again, just by walking”. 

“When I had two lungs, I wasn’t active, I did nothing. It’s so funny now I only have one lung and now I’m more active. It’s unbelievable.”

For now, Grace has her eyes set on trying Badminton and some gentle keep fit exercises, proving there really can be more to life after cancer.