12 Jan 2024

Kate Wightman: walking the length of NZ for a very personal cause

From Summer Times, 10:45 am on 12 January 2024
Cyclist Kate Wightman on the Waiau Pass while walking the length of NZ to raise funding & awareness for gynaecological cancer

Cyclist Kate Wightman on the Waiau Pass while walking the length of NZ to raise funding & awareness for gynaecological cancer Photo: @kate.wightman

In her final weeks on the Te Araroa Trail, Kate Wightman is striding a path that only last year seemed impossible.

Two years ago, aged 29, the former elite road cyclist was diagnosed with three types of gynaecological cancer.

To raise money and awareness for these little-known cancers, Wightman began walking the length of Aotearoa last September.

On a recent rest day in Tekapo, she told Summer Times she was feeling weary but proud.

"I can't believe that I've already made it this far after everything I've been through."

Last year, after undergoing three surgeries and chemotherapy, Wightman decided to try and help raise awareness of gynaecological cancer so other women can hopefully avoid going through what she went through.

In 2022, after seeing a doctor about a hip injury, she got an "absolute surprise" when an MRI revealed a six-centimetre tumour on one of her ovaries.

"From there, I had a few scans. And then we realised that actually there were three types of cancer. And I had to get a whole lot of organs removed and go through some serious treatment. So I call it the luckiest injury of my life. Because I don't know if I'd be here telling the same story if it wasn't for that.

"I did have pain. And in hindsight, had I known the symptoms, I probably would have pushed harder. I did go and talk to doctors and we couldn't really figure out what was going on. But now that I'm more aware of what the symptoms are, I think, absolutely, I would have gone and got it checked out. Which is why I'm really, really trying to push this advocacy and awareness so other women do know what those symptoms are."

'I've always wanted to do the Te Araroa Trail. But I think getting cancer and realising that life's pretty short gave me a quick ticket to wanting to do it."

The five kinds of gynaecological cancer - ovarian,  uterine (endometrial)vaginalcervical and vulval - have very different symptoms, Wightman says.

But in general, women should keep an eye out for abdominal pain, irregular bleeding, changes in digestion and discomfort in the gut area.

Her advice is to first listen to your body and be aware of any changes that are happening.

"Then start to get comfortable having conversations with friends, loved ones, and health practitioners about those changes.

"Be forward at talking to people about it and advocating for your own health because, at the moment, that is the way that we detect gynaecological cancer. It's really just about pushing your own health agenda."

Since Wightman finished chemotherapy treatment in January 2023, she says she's recovered pretty well, thanks to an athletic background and good general health. Yet her body is definitely more tired now than it used to be.

"I'm just taking it day by day and trying to sort of listen to the body and yeah, just not think too far ahead. Take it one mountain range at a time."

Wightman says crossing the Tararua Ranges was her most challenging day on the Trail.

"We woke up and it was cloudy, terrible rain, and we decided that we just have to get up and over the range pretty quickly. But yeah, the rain jacket only provides so much protection and we were just soaked through that day."

While walking, she's had less time to think than expected due to chatting with fellow hikers on the trail who are plentiful and mostly from overseas.

"One of the things that I didn't expect was just the amount of people and the amount of people with incredible stories. 

"I've met some incredible people, people who are going through severe adversity and you know, have quite severe disabilities but they are taking on this challenge as well. And it's just amazing to see people overcome those challenges in creative ways and manage to get through this, however fast or slow."

Weighing in at 16 kilograms, Wightman says her backpack contains a book, dehydrated meals - supplied by Country Cuisine - bread, cheese, muesli bars and chocolate. As an athlete, she's also carrying a "certain resilience".

"I think you have the ability to take a loss and pick yourself back up and look at how you can do things differently or, yeah, tackle a problem differently. So I'm really, really grateful that I had that experience. Because I think even if I'm not continuing that athletic career, I still have those tools that I can use throughout life. So very happy to have that."

Wightman says it's unlikely she'll ever return to professional cycling now.

"I think realistically, my body is capable of very different things. But I'm happy to just kind of go with the flow and maybe tackle a few different challenges now, within my limitations. But I'm still very keen to keep fit and healthy, that's a core part of my life, and maybe be involved with professional cycling in a different capacity from the other side."

On the day she reaches Bluff - which is scheduled to be 3 February - Wightman will be met by a group of family and friends.

"I've got a day kind of marked on the calendar, which I think I'll have to get there by .... no pressure, but they will book their flights. So I think we'll have a group of 20 or 30 of us heading up Bluff Hill and have a little celebration and a dinner afterwards.

"I think I'm gonna have a big burger or pizza, and probably a few tears of happiness with everybody because it's a huge challenge. And I honestly can't believe that I've already made it this far after everything I've been through. So yeah, it's gonna be a special one.

"I've really changed my perspective over the last 12 months and changed my career path and how I'm approaching life and what I'm prioritising. And yeah, looking at something new with my partner who's just retired from professional cycling so we've got some adventures to look forward to. And we're figuring that out kind of on the trail.

"Most days, I just kind of count my lucky stars and think how lucky I am that I get to do something like this. There were a few days last year where I didn't know if I'd ever be able to do a hike through mountains.

"I think my perspective has totally changed and my level of gratitude is so different as well. I'm just beyond grateful to be able to sit in the sunshine and climb up mountains and swim through rivers. That's incredible. And yeah, we live in such an amazing country."

Read more about the signs and symptoms of gynaecological cancer here.

Follow Kate's journey on YouTube.