Vicki Gilbert was misdiagnosed with bone cancer at 19 and later had part of her right leg removed. Now recovering from breast cancer, she is preparing to swim the English Channel. Interview by Neil Hudson
To say Vicki Gilbert is an inspiration is probably selling her short. Considering what she has been through during the last 20 years, the mother-of-three displays a steely determination and stoic sense of courage which is hard to put into words.
To give you an idea of the level of personal trauma she has had to overcome, at 19, she was diagnosed with bone cancer, which resulted in prolonged treatment involving chemo and radio therapy and several operations to remove parts of her right leg and eventually the bulk of it.
At the time, Vicki, 46, of Yeadon, Leeds was an aspiring sports coach training at Leeds Carnegie College - her dreams had to be put on hold.
In addition to the life-changing effects of the amputation, the treatment left her with hearing loss and damage to her kidneys but what was most galling of all was the bombshell revelation that her bone cancer had been initially misdiagnosed. In short, the chemo, the amputation, the resulting health issues, which she bares to this day, had all been unnecessary.
As if that wasn’t enough, the medical authority which carried out the procedure – Birmingham Health Authority – contested her claim for damages, insisting she had not been significantly affected by the loss of a limb and hearing and damage to her kidneys. They fought the case through the courts for seven years, before finally settling in 2000 for £1.2m.
In 2011, Vicki was highly commended in the business award category at the Yorkshire Women of Achievement Awards. That was, in part, a
recognition of the fact she overcame massive personal disabilities to pursue a successful business career, setting up baby signing classes, which she still runs today.
In the autumn of 2016, while recovering from ligament reconstruction on her ankle, she decided to attempt the Aspire Channel Pool Swim (the equivalent distance of the English Channel) and on the back of it, she was invited to join a team to make a real attempt on the English Channel.
But tragedy struck again, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016. Horrifyingly, the spectre of her misdiagnosis at 19 came back to haunt her, after doctors said the disease could have been caused by the initial radiotherapy.
Despite all this and having spent most of last year recovering from treatment (although that still continues), the mother-of-three - her children with husband Sean are Hope, 16, Jack, 12 and Joe, seven - is in training and hopes to compete in the challenge in August.
You would think that would be enough, given all she has been through, but Vicki has her sights set on an even bigger challenge, as she explains to me over the phone from Split, Croatia, where she is on holiday.
“In the autumn of 2016, I was recovering from ankle ligament reconstruction, I decided to do the Aspire pool channel swim. They saw footage of me doing it and invited me to do actual channel relay this summer but two weeks later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I spent all last year in treatment - chemo, surgery, radiotherapy. I was out of water for 10 months but I still went to do the test swim, so I had until now to get fit. They put me with a team of five others, there’s six in the relay team. We are swimming the Channel and our window of opportunity opens on August 9.
“Being diagnosed with breast cancer was terrible. They told me it might have been caused by my original unnecessary treatment, which was a bit of a hard one to swallow. It did nearly floor me. I was so ill from the chemo and then had a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery, which went a bit wrong and I had to have big skin graft off the thigh of my remaining leg. That knocked all my confidence.”
She took up pilate classes, which helped with her confidence but throughout the surgery and treatment, she continued to work - at the time, she was a part time lecturer in physical education at Leeds Beckett, a post which subsequently became full time.
“I don’t give myself a break really. Even with everything that’s gone on, I take the view that I’m still here and so I have to carry on, to make the most of it.”
Training for the Channel swim has been an uphill struggle but it’s one she embraces with vigour and enthusiasm, first by undertaking indoor pool swims and progressing to open water challenges, swimming in the River Wharfe, Ilkley Lido and organised events at reservoirs. She’s just signed up to take part in the 5.25 mile Chill Swim at Coniston Water in September and even found time on holiday for sea swims in the Adriatic.
Fro Vicki, swimming has been a revelation.
“Studies have show physical activity can reduce the chances of recurrence by 30-65 per cent. If it was a pill, people would be taking the whole bottle. I asked the medics why they don’t promote it and they said they don’t have any pathways to send people down. There’s a couple of initiatives going on but not much so I thought I’m going to do something about it.”
She completed training allowing her to lead what will be Leeds’s first course for cancer patients to promote the benefits of exercise, beginning in the autumn at the Sir Robert Ogden Macmillan Centre.
“People just don’t know about it and having a GP tell you to go to the gym just isn’t enough. I know how low you can feel, you have no confidence. Hopefully, this will be the start of something.
“Minimum national guidelines are for 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity, that can be in 10 minutes bouts, you don’t have to go to the gym, it could be gardening. My view is if I can do something about it, then I will and if it still comes back, then it’s not through lack of trying. If I can get these courses up and running, to help others as well, then that’s even better.”
Vicki was wrongly diagnosed with bone cancer aged 19 and had part of her right leg amputated
In 2011, Vicki won a Yorkshire Women of Achievement Award for setting up baby signing classes
In 2016, she was diagnosed with breast cancer
She is due to swim the English Channel next month - CLICK HERE TO HELP HER GET THERE
You can read her blog here
She also wants to promote exercise for cancer patients
Husband Sean climbed Kilimanjaro last year to raise money for Marie Curie after losing his mother to cancer in 2013