Swimming in Sweden

Five years ago, on a ski course, I walked into a guesthouse restaurant to see a man grinning awkwardly. I grinned awkwardly back and made a new best friend. Five minutes later his wife walked in and then there were three.

We shared a passion for restaurants, travelling to new places, smutty jokes, ridiculous challenges, teasing each other mercilessly and making plans. A match made in heaven. Only when outsiders questioned it, did we ponder whether our friendship was unusual and reacted by christening ourselves the Tricycle, acknowledging that we were pretty damn awesome together.

Last year we bought tickets to see P!nk in Sweden, of course in Sweden, why would you go somewhere convenient when you could have an adventure in a new country? Three weeks later I was diagnosed with cancer. 

So many plans were abruptly cancelled when I was diagnosed, so it was with immense pleasure that I realised the concert was just after I finished active treatment. I had no idea if I would have any energy, but there was hope.

It was clearly a sign when I read a support group post which started “Hi from Sweden”, and I got in touch with Fia who said that she would love to meet a fellow “flattie”; someone who had opted not to reconstruct after a mastectomy, a first for both of us.

After being grounded for nine months, I was excited to fly again, and being hugged by Ruth and Michael at the other end was pure sweetness as I have been mostly alone since my parents left three months ago.

Stockholm is a gorgeous city in summer, sparkling, friendly and fun. In spite of cancer and travel fatigue, I was excited to be adventuring again with my tricycle. The Pink concert was, as expected, a bit too much for me, too crowded, too much standing, too long, but it was also spectacular and thrilling. And triggering. “Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die, you gotta get up and try” had me ugly crying into Ruth’s hair. The triggers are unexpected and intense. I often wonder how I will function in polite society with them.

Two days later, as I sat on a train with Ruth and Michael, I was grilled about who I was meeting, where she was taking me, what her intentions were and how they would rescue me if I couldn’t answer any of the earlier questions. I laughed in a surprisingly carefree way and logged them into Find my Friends to alleviate their paranoia. I was just so excited to be meeting someone like me!

I got off the train to see a woman my age, I totally checked out her chest and saw she was beautifully flat, had a little internal tear and cheer as I had found the first woman who kinda looked like me.

Fia was even more awesome than I expected, we had only messaged briefly to organise meeting, so I was overjoyed to find a woman who I bonded with immediately.

Tragically young, isolated in a country where most patients seemed to be older or had opted for reconstruction, terrified of recurrence, menopause too early, chemo brain, being expected to go back to “normal” after our hair grew back, body image issues after breast loss and weight gain. All breast cancers and situations are different, but there are experiences that are universal amongst us, and us alone. Our sad and exclusive club.

But we are more than our tragedies and I was ecstatic when Fia had said that she would love to swim with me and took me to a lake from her childhood summers.

As we dived into the frigid, green water of an isolated Swedish lake we spoke of things that also make us who we are; families, friends, work and travel.

As we flicked the lake bugs from us and eyed the geese warily, we compared scars and shared diagnoses. 

As we climbed the mountain together we discussed superstitions, memories and friendships.

As we shared fika, a Swedish tradition of coffee and cinnamon buns, at the top of the mountain we talked of wild grandmothers, cultural relics, and I was declared a viking.

As she led me to the communal shower and stripped off as though it was the most natural thing in the world, I shed a quiet tear. This was the first time I had been naked in front of someone since my surgery and it was so beautiful for me to share it with someone who thought nothing of it and didn’t hide her scars from the others in the changing room.

As we walked to the parking lot, we discussed our futures as the rain started to fall. We clung to each other and tried to hold back tears as we said goodbye. I sobbed on the train back to the city. There’s a connection you have with women who have gone through breast cancer, an understanding of the emotions and fears and an affinity for those who look similar. A truly positive experience.

Back in the city, the tricycle reunited for more beer, sightseeing, the ABBA museum, in jokes and the comfort of a sweet friendship.

Not to be outdone by Fia, Ruth and Michael announced that we would swim on our last morning. As neither of them are particularly fond of swimming, this was surprisingly sweet…although I suspected it was also related to their fear of being left out of my Swedish swimming story.

So on our last morning, we walked to the Baltic Sea and I launched myself into the water like the viking I clearly am now, while they minced in. We swam through the green water to the duck shit covered pontoon, decided we didn’t want to rest on their roost, so swam to the next dock, tapped it, because it clearly wouldn’t count if we didn’t touch the other side, and swam back.

What a lovely couple of days; starting to feel human again, forgetting about cancer briefly, spending time with old and new friends who make me laugh, singing and crying to great music, and paddling in Swedish lakes and seas. These are healing moments. 

Distance swum since last post: 0.2km
Distance swum to date: 1.0km
Distance to go: 199.0km

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