A woman who was paralysed in a horrific lorry crash then diagnosed with breast cancer, is celebrating her first year in remission by inspiring others with a Race for Life at Home challenge.
Lena McAllister, 29 from Carlisle, discovered a golf ball sized lump in her breast two years ago and underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was an enormous blow, but it wasn’t the first time Lena had feared for her life.
At 18, Lena was hit by a 40-tonne lorry, throwing her 90 feet in the air moments after crashing her own car. She miraculously survived the accident but was left with a shattered pelvis, broken femur and a spinal cord injury which left her paralysed.
‘I don’t remember an awful lot of the aftermath of the accident, and what I thought I did was jumbled up by being in a induced coma and highly medicated,’ Lena said. ‘This had to be done as my body had begun to shut down with the severe injuries I had sustained – it helped save my life.’
Lena doesn’t think she has ever really come to terms with losing the ability to walk. She doesn’t think it’s possible to forget how it felt to walk and move around so effortlessly for the first 18 years of her life.
‘It was a drastic change, both physically and mentally,’ she tells us. ‘But I did come to terms with trying to overcome it rather quickly, as my main objective was to accomplish life’s simple tasks once again.
‘Being able to dress myself and simple things like brushing my teeth and doing my hair, were enormous achievements. To accomplish these things was for me winning a marathon.’
In the aftermath of the accident, the hardest thing for Lena to cope with was the near-constant excruciating pain.
‘Although medication was available, I refused it,’ says Lena. ‘I couldn’t keep clarity and focus when I had taken meds, so I simply had to battle on through a little each day.
‘I think it may have taken me longer to adapt because of this. Being bed-bound and unable to move is a very daunting experience.
‘To have nurses, (who were amazing) turn you frequently because you couldn’t move yourself, wash you, dress you, and treat you practically like a new-born, was a hard thing to experience, especially when you have had so much independence in life.’
But Lena can also see that this ordeal has made her so much stronger. And it prepared her for the next battle she would have to fight.
‘I’ve been through a lot in my life but I’m definitely a fighter,’ she says. ‘I had major surgery following the car accident, so when the doctors said I’d need surgery to remove the cancer, I thought “bring it on.”‘
Lena first realised there was something wrong when she noticed an unusual lump on her breast while she was lying on her bed.
‘I felt it with the top of my finger and thought it was odd. I mentioned it to my mum straight away, who said I should go to the GP and get checked out.
‘I was first sent to get my biopsies in March 2018, my consultant a very lovely gentleman. He asked me to bring someone with me for the appointment a week later when I was to receive my results.
‘Me being my independent self told him, “No I’ll be OK, I don’t need anyone” he then stated to me the size of the lump and how on size scaled charts, he was thinking I would need someone. So I asked him outright to give me more details and he explained to me the chances of this lump being cancer.
‘My response was, “So, Mr Mikalakis from what you’ve told me I’m looking towards 50/50 it could be cancer?” He replied solemnly “Yes”.’
Lena took her mum with her to get her results a week later. But Lena had a feeling deep down that it wasn’t going to be good news. They sat in the small office with her consultant and another doctor who would become Lena’s oncologist.
‘He told me the biopsies of the lump had come back positive,’ says Lena. ‘I had cancer…. My mam broke down crying but I didn’t. It wasn’t the time.
‘I asked my consultant and oncologist the plan of action and how were we going to fix me, what could be done? After a lengthy discussion, chemotherapy and radiotherapy were my options.
‘I was then sent for more biopsies on my lymphnodes under my right arm, and had to arrange another appointment for a week later to get them results.
‘After I left hospital I came home and went back on bed rest. It was then it hit me. I felt deflated, and hollow. Maybe it was because I had tensely built myself up through the week waiting to hear the news, I’m not sure, but it was like I had lost my energy.’
Treatment was tough, but Lena was determined to stay as positive as possible. When the chemo started to make her hair fall out, Lena decided to take control and go for a buzz cut.
‘I researched loads about breast cancer and followed ladies on Instagram. It was fantastic to see how many other women were fighting though this. I saw they could do it and thought I could do it as well! This helped me a lot,’ says Lena.
‘The amount of ladies who contacted me on Facebook from my local area, who had fought, survived and were leading normal lives really was inspiring.
‘Positive mental attitude is a key factor. I just kept telling myself it’s not long, it’s only for short space of time, you can do this.’
Now, Lena is planning to complete 10km wheelchair rides every day for ten days for her Race for Life at Home challenge – so that’s 100km in total.
‘Race for Life is important to me as I still know friends going through treatment, I have lost friends and family to cancer and even experienced it myself,’ she explains.
‘I feel, when I complete this challenge I’m doing it in memory for those we have sadly lost, but raising funds to help to save others.
‘The hardest thing, I think, will be the hills as I get further through the days. And the mental challenge of it all. But as long as I keep focused I know I can do it.’
Lena says the term ‘strong woman’ isn’t about being physically strong.
‘It’s accepting you still have challenges in life even at your weakest,’ she says. ‘And taking just a little step each day, when you’re at your weakest, is a great accomplishment.’
If you’re a strong woman, or you know a strong woman – we want to hear from you.