For SA cyclist Elsa Karsten things were going great. She had just won the SA championships in her age category and seemed destined for even greater things. She had already bagged a world masters title in 2003.
Then, early last year everything came crashing down when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A mastectomy followed and she is currently still under going treatment.
But next week will see the deeply determined Karsten setting off on her first international tour since being diagnosed. The 41-year-old will be competing at the World Masters Road Race and Time Trial Championships in St Johann in Austria from August 20 to 26.
“I’m excited, but also a bit nervous,” she admitted last week. “It’s not that I don’t think I’m good enough, it’s just that I haven’t done much racing recently.
“But this time last year I thought I would never be able to ride a bike again. I hope things go well at the World Championships. I’m not on top of the world but I have been given a second chance and I want to make use of it.
“Hopefully I can make it into the top three but just to be there will be great.”
It has been a tough road for the former Pick ’n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge winner, who was back on her bike just four months after being diagnosed.
She related her agony of persevering and the reward it has brought as South Africa honours its great women and its public is engaged in a national conversation on values.
Karsten now goes for tests every two months and has an implant, as well as having to take medication daily – something she will be doing for at least the next four years.
“When I was diagnosed with cancer I wasn’t really thinking about cycling. The only thing I thinking about was getting better,” she explained.
“Afterwards I started thinking ‘why me?’ I had just reached the top and won the SA champs in my age category.
“I was so depressed at one stage. But I went back to my doctor and he told me to go back to my family and by that he meant my cycling family. They had been organising fundraising events for me and everything and I thought I can’t disappoint them because then it would have been a lost cause.
“Coming back and riding again was kind of my way of thanking them for everything.”
Karsten took part in the Tshwane Go Banking event at the end of last month and even then, she admits, she had to dig dip just to finish the race.
“On the third last lap I was going to quit. I was really struggling and not at all in my best form but I stuck it out. I just thought to myself
‘I’m not going to quit’. And on the last lap we caught the leaders and I finished with the bunch which kept me smiling,” she said.
Obviously, being a cyclist, Karsten has gained great inspiration from American Lance Armstrong who overcame cancer and then went on to win the Tour de France a record seven times.
“I have both of Lance Armstrong’s books and of course he was a great inspiration to me. There are pictures in there of him in hospital when he was getting treatment and you can see he was just so sick.
“The doctors didn’t think he was going to make it but he did and got back on the bike. I thought if he can do it, so can I. Cancer is a funny thing. You have to fight it all the way. And if your head says no, you most probably won’t make it.”
Karsten’s own advice to others who are fighting the same fight is to find their own unique way of dealing with it. “It’s different for every person and you have to deal with it in your own way. Don’t let people tell you how you should do it; do it your way. And never give up.
“My mom has had cancer for 21 years and she has never given up. She’s also been a huge inspiration to me because she has struggled a lot. I have also always thought if she can do it, so can I. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.” – Heartlines Features.
By Karien Jonckeere.