THREE women are preparing to embark on the ultimate endurance race – rowing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean – and aiming to break the world record in the process.
Charlotte Irving, Abby Johnston and Kat Cordiner bill themselves as ‘three ordinary girls who have decided to do something extraOARdinary’.
In Kat’s case that is a monumental understatement.
Last year, during lockdown, Kat was given her second cancer diagnosis and told that this time, the disease is incurable. She knows her time is limited but undeterred, she is taking on a challenge that would push even someone at their physical peak to the limit of their endurance.
Rowing the world’s second largest ocean is acknowledged as the ultimate endurance race. More people have summitted Mount Everest than have successfully rowed the Atlantic. Fewer than 20% of ocean rowers are women.
It’s thought Kat will be the first person to tackle this challenge as a cancer patient.
Kat, 40, Charlotte, 31, and Abby, 32, will be living on a 25ft boat – called Dolly Parton – for up to 60 days, rowing two hours on and two hours off continuously from December to January. They will be unsupported.
If something goes wrong, they can only be helicoptered out in the first or last 200 miles.
But despite the many challenges, Kat, is determined to take on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge and raise money for Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.
Londoner Kat was diagnosed with cervical cancer in March 2019, completely by chance as she was having her eggs harvested in the hope of having a baby in the future.
“I was freezing my eggs. During the first collection, it all went well and I was just waiting to go home when they said they had spotted a potential problem, not with the eggs, but with me,” she said.
“They said it was probably fibroids. But five days later they told me it was cancer.
“I was distraught. I was actually more upset about not being able to carry a child than I was about the cancer.
“I’m someone who has always wanted a family – that’s why I was freezing my eggs. I was thinking about doing it on my own, maybe in a couple of years’ time. As it happens, they found the cancer. It was actually fortunate they found it as I had no symptoms.”
Kat underwent a radical hysterectomy but doctors left her ovaries as she wanted to do another round of egg-freezing.
Once her eggs were harvested, she had her ovaries removed as there was a higher chance of the cancer returning if they remained.
The news came just after Kat had returned from taking part in the 2018 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, where she met Abby and they came up with the idea of the Atlantic row.
After the surgery, all seemed well. But last June, she began experiencing stomach pains.
“My doctor talked about other possibilities like infections but I knew instantly the cancer was back,” she said.
Kat worried that going back into treatment would scupper the crew’s chances of taking part in the Atlantic Row.
“Given that I was told this was incurable, I was worried about leaving the girls in the lurch. But they said ‘No, we still want to do this and it doesn’t matter if you can’t always train’.”
But there was a further blow – despite training through chemotherapy, doctors found a growth on her heart and told her to stop exercising immediately.
Kat describes what followed as ‘comical’.
“There were three options – a thrombosis, the cancer had spread or – highly unlikely – it was a myxoma, a benign cardiac tumour. It turned out to be a myxoma.
“I laughed and said ‘OK, but am I still going to be able to do the race?!’
Her medical team decided to treat the cancer first and then operate on her heart to remove the tumour.
She was treated with carboplatin, paclitaxel, and targeted therapy drug avastin, as well as six sessions of radiotherapy. Cancer Research UK was involved in the development of paclitaxel and played an important role in the underpinning research behind carboplatin and avastin.
After the exhausting intensive cancer treatment, heart surgery and six months without training, Kat was ready to get back in the boat.
“The heart surgery was a horrendous operation – definitely the worst of all the operations I’ve had,” she said. “But the surgery hasn’t weakened my heart – all my tests are really good and the medics are happy.
“It floored me a bit initially and more than anything I was peeved because I couldn’t exercise. But when I got back in the boat, I was quite strong – I knew I could do it!”
Kat is now in remission and only taking drugs to deal with the effects of being plunged into an early menopause.
She said: “The doctors have told me I don’t have decades, I have years, so I really want to make the most of them.
“I don’t want to muck around doing stuff that doesn’t matter. I want to do things that are challenging and fun.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be in remission. A lot of people think cancer-chemo-death. But today the drugs are so much better – you can live your life with cancer. People can live for years on treatment.”
Kat’s harvested eggs are still “on ice”. She’s unsure what to do with them.
“After my first diagnosis, I was going to wait till I was two years clear before looking to have a child on my own, utilising a surrogate.
“Now, given I’m only just in remission and knowing my prognosis, I haven’t ruled out the possibility of using them, should I meet someone who wants them.
“But I do wonder if it would be selfish on my part to bring life into the world knowing that I am not likely to be there for them, so I will likely donate them to someone who would needs them.”
You wouldn’t necessarily know it by their day jobs – Kat is an International Manager at HSBC, Londoner Charlotte is a marketing manager and Abby, 32, is a professional rowing coach from Surrey.
But these three have experience, determination and grit by the bucketload.
“As a crew of three women, we have to be more strategic – we’re not as strong as men,” said Charlotte.
“But the world record for the fastest female trio is a realistic goal. It’s currently 49 days. The team that used our boat last year had five days of bad weather and got blown back to the start line. Without that, they would have beaten the world record by two days.
“As a crew, Abby and I have quite a few years of rowing experience and Kat’s physique is perfect for rowing.
“The only thing that would really impede us is if we hit very strong headwinds or if something breaks and we’re unable to fix it,” she said.
The women need to be their own mechanics, electricians, doctors – and best friends.
“The day to day challenges will be the sheer discomfort of being sat on our backsides and dealing with things like boils and rashes – there’s almost nowhere soft to sit,” said Charlotte.
“We will be uncomfortable and sleep-deprived. It will be very hot, we’ll be eating freeze-dried food and using a bucket toilet. We could be seasick.
“But we are ‘head down and get on with it’ girls – adventurous and resilient. And we try to do everything we do with love and respect.
“We are going to annoy each other – in a small boat with tiredness and sickness, that’s a given.
“We’ve all been through physical, mental and financial stress to get this far. My goal is to get off at the other end still loving these two humans and for them not to hate me! When we’re on that boat, we are each other’s family.”
Abby said the question they get asked the most is why they are taking on such an enormous challenge.
“The simple response is – why not? Everyone knows life is simply too short and Kat’s diagnosis is evidence of this.
“I truly believe we all have the ability to achieved great things when we set our minds to it but we just have to be prepared to step out of our comfort zones.
“As the saying goes: ‘You can never cross an ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of shore!’”.
Kat added: “To me, this challenge also represents something more – to live like I’ve never lived before. We grow up thinking we’re guaranteed 85 years of life and the ability to do what we want.
“I read somewhere that a cancer diagnosis helps you understand life is a gift and not a guarantee and this creates opportunities.
“Even after my first diagnosis, I found I stopped stressing over a lot of things. I gained perspective on what is important and I’m determined to make the most of however much time I have.
“The challenge to row the Atlantic in aid of three epic charities with the hopes of smashing the word record is one that we are incredibly passionate about – and cancer won’t stand in our way.”
Charlotte added: “We want to turn the tide on cancer and raise much-needed funds for cancer charities. While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge effect on every aspect of our daily lives, cancer patients are being adversely affected by the current pandemic which is that 1 in 2 people in the UK will be diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lives. And this is an issue sadly so close to home for so many – including us.
“The pandemic’s insidious impact on the treatment of cancer will have long-term and wide-ranging repercussions for cancer patients and their loved ones.”
Lynn Daly, spokeswoman for Cancer Research UK, said: “We are in awe of what Charlotte, Abby and particularly Kat are taking on. It’s is a Herculean challenge – but these are very determined women and we salute their strength and courage.
“As well as the physical challenge and a word record attempt, they have set themselves a target or raising £100,000 for Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and The Royal Marsden Charity, so we hope the public will get behind them and help them reach their ambitious goals.”
The team fly to La Gomera in the Canary Islands on November 29 an start the challenge on December 12.
As well as Dolly Parton’s back catalogue, they will be taking a Christmas carol playlist with them.
“It may be Christmas Day – we can sing along but we’ll still be rowing,” said Charlotte.
The team is holding a fundraising ball on September 18 at Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London. Tickets, details about the rest of the challenge and sponsorship opportunities: www.weareextraoardinary.com