FEATURE: Fighting killer disease has made our bonds stronger say inspirational couple Sally and Graham - as Stevenage 'Twin Town' riders gear up for gruelling continental ride to raise £100k for Lister Hospital
PUBLISHED: 15:05 20 May 2017 | UPDATED: 15:05 20 May 2017
Danny Loo Photography 2017
There's not long to go until the inspirational Twin Town 1000k riders embark on their gruelling ride across Europe to raise £100,000 for Stevenage's Lister Hospital
The group has been training hard all through the winter to be in the best shape they can be to take on the daunting challenge they set themselves.
With the team planning to set off from the hospital on Friday, June 9 to cycle the 70 odd miles to Harwich – before they ride through Holland to Stevenage’s twin towns in Germany and France, they have already attracted considerable interest, not to mention respect for taking on such a difficult test.
But for one of the riders, Graham Hoare, and his partner Sally Pickles – who is also part of the support team and the lads’ biggest cheerleader – the ride will not be their biggest challenge by any means.
For the brave couple both faced down cancer, not only living to tell to tale, but flourishing – becoming a courageous inspiration to everyone who has met them – as well as giving their all to raise as much money for the Lister, the NHS hospital that helped save them.
Sally is a warm, personable character with a great sense of humour – but woe betide anyone who would be foolish enough to cross her – as they would most certainly come off second best. As she proved in fighting off skin cancer.
She takes up the story, saying in a matter-of-fact manner that belied her bravery: “During 2015 I’d been referred to the Lister to have a mole checked on my forearm. “The Lister performed a punch biopsy on the mole, the results of which came back inconclusive. I then had it surgically removed and was diagnosed with malignant melanoma.
“I then needed a wide local excision to ensure all traces of cancer were definitely removed.”
Excluding non-melanoma, melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK. Around 13,500 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year with more than a quarter of skin cancer cases diagnosed in people under 50 – which is unusually early compared to most other types of cancer.
Over recent years, skin cancer has become much more common in the UK. This is thought to be the result of increased exposure to intense sunlight while on holiday abroad which results in more than 2,000 people dying every year across the country from melanoma.
Thankfully Sally wasn’t prepared to be one of them.
Confidence when outside in warm weather was a problem for Sally but she has learned to cope. She now gets checked regularly for any further skin issues.
Brave Sally told the Comet: “My experience all felt very surreal, Graham was a great help.
“After the removal of the malignant melanoma regular checks have all been all clear and this over time has given me the confidence to be out on a sunny day with a very high factor sun-cream on, at least factor 50!
“When Graham was diagnosed the roles were well and truly switched – both of us agreed it was almost harder for the person without cancer to support the patient than it was to be the patient.”
Sally has drawn on the experience in a positive way on many levels, and is now a patient representative on the Beds and Herts skin committee.
Graham served his country for 24 years as a Secure Communications Engineer in the RAF. During that time he travelled the world and was based in Germany, Hong Kong and Italy as well as the UK, leaving in 2008 and settling in Herts, where he met Sally in 2010.
However, during the time Sally was getting treated, Graham – who had always been as fit as a fiddle – started to feel very fatigued, so went to see his GP.
After quite a few tests the GP sent Graham for a PSA test, commonly known as the blood test that checks for Prostate Cancer.
The result came back with a ‘raised’ result for a 49 year old at 4.92.
This triggered a referral to the Lister, where things moved very quickly, culminating in being diagnosed in December 2015.
On the same day as the diagnosis Sally and Graham had booked to go and see Simply Red in a concert – but they still attended as they were determined to try to carry on.
Christmas was a struggle as decisions on treatment needed to be made. Further checks were conducted including a bone scan, which all seemed to reveal that the cancer was contained within the prostate. As a result Sally and Graham decided on having the operation to remove his prostate with the operation taking place in early February 2016 with the operation being performed by Mr Jim Adshead.
Thanks to the skill of Mr Adshead the operation went to plan. 10 days after the operation the catheter was removed and quick improvement was made from there.
The first blood test eight weeks after the operation confirmed the operation was a success with Graham’s PSA reading being at zero.
All checks since then have also showed a reading of zero.
After just a couple of months the major side effects were no longer affecting Graham so he was able to focus on getting back in shape.
He will have regular checks for the rest of his life so if the cancer comes back at any stage it can get treated – and having these regular checks are key to having some peace of mind to both Sally and Graham.
Graham explained: “Getting that first PSA test result about eight weeks after my operation was a very tense moment.
“When I was told it was zero it really did feel like I was going to get my life back – from diagnosis to this first result was about 13 weeks.
“The battle since that result 14 months ago has not been easy at times but the various running events and training for the Twin Towns 1000 ride have all helped.
“I will also be returning to work after the ride in June having taken a few months out.”
Graham cannot stress the importance of getting checked if you have any concerns, whatever your age, because, as he underlines, one man dies of Prostate Cancer every hour in the UK alone.
Around 220 days after the operation Graham ran the Great North Run, the biggest half marathon in the world, in an hour and 50 minutes and although very tired afterwards it was a fantastic moment for him.
He recently ran the Reading half marathon in an hour and 46 minutes, close to his pre-operation personal best and just a few weeks ago completed the London Marathon in an impressive 4 hours 10.
The group has earned plaudits – and backing – from many people in Stevenage and beyond.
A large number of thriving businesses and successful companies and entrepreneurs in the town – as well as Stevenage’s MP Stephen McPartland – gathered to meet the inspiring Twin Towns riders at a very well attended business breakfast at the revamped Cromwell Hotel in the old town to help aid their bid to raise £100,000 for the Lister Hospital. Lloyds Bank in Primett Road in the town have chosen them as one of their local charities to support, and the Cromwell also hosted a sold out quiz which more than 250 people attended.
Funds have also been raised through spinathons – non-stop cycling events – at the David Lloyd gym in Stevenage and quiz nights which saw some heroic riding from the team as well as supporters including David Lloyd’s sport Jude Crisp.
One of their teammates on next month’s ride, former soldier and professional footballer, Neil Trebble paid tribute to Graham and Sally.
Neil, who played for Stevenage FC, told the Comet: “I have huge respect for Sally and Graham, not just through their hard work with Twin Towns on and off the bike, but through their own health battles.
“Their bravery is inspiring to us all and it’s a privilege to call them friends and teammates.”
Showing a glimpse of the huge camaraderie and excellent team spirt the group has built up Neil added good-naturedly with a glint in his eye: “Mind you I don’t let Graham forget that Stevenage beat his beloved Portsmouth 3-0”, before saying with genuine feeling: “In all seriousness Graham and Sally are an inspiration to everyone.”
With the ride a mere three weeks away the group’s fundraising is gathering pace aplenty with nearly £20,000 already raised with Twin Town gathering real momentum ahead of the ride.
As Graham says passionately: “Our ride across Europe is just a couple of weeks away now, I am really looking forward to this new challenge and feel I am just about as well prepared as I could be.
“The support that the team have had has been great and the reach out into the local community grows all of the time.”
As Sally adds: “We’re so proud to be part of TT1K. We’re also proud of how we coped with their our threatening situations.
“It has only made our bond much stronger.” With this close knit team showing such courage and loyalty to each other, how can the Twin Towns riders do anything other than achieve their gruelling challenge?
It won’t be through lack of bravery that’s for sure.
*Twin Town have a total of 12 riders for the big cycle over nine days, leaving the Lister hospital from 9am on Friday, June 9.
Steve Watkins, Darren Heath, Ade Morris, Pete Woolmer, Neil Trebble, Stephen Hibberd, Steve Clarkson and Ben Austin and their two overseas cyclists Pete van Poelgeest and Brian Hopgood, are all ready for the ride. Unfortunately Stuart Smith has had to drop after medical advice but will be rooting for his teammates.
The team are riding a 100 mile sportive in Norfolk on 21st May and are involved in an family-friendly event in Stevenage old town on Monday, May 29 – which will see Lloyds Bank are riding with them to help raise funds.
If you are an individual, school or business interested in learning how you can sponsor the team, or get involved to help raise cash for a very worthy cause visit their website www.twintowns1000.bike or you can email them firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more follow them on Twitter @twintowns1000.