Milton Keynes breast cancer survivor and maths tutor to swim the channel for mental health causes

Seven years after chemotherapy treatment she is taking on this monumental swimming challenge.

Friday, 2nd July 2021, 5:21 pm
Updated Monday, 5th July 2021, 9:06 am

A maths tutor from Milton Keynes who also survived breast cancer, is taking on the challenge of swimming across the channel this month.

Liz Hayes credits swimming as one of the things that kept her sane and healthy when recovering after battling the deadly disease in 2014.

Now aged 56 she is looking to conquer the channel, swimming the 21-mile stretch of sea between England and France, in a relay format with friends.

MARVELs team wearing their charity t-shirts

She will be joined by her fellow 'Thames MARVELs' who are raising money for the Charlie Waller Trust. The MARVELs, is made up of six female swimmers, the name isn't simply a reference to Captain America and co., it also symbolises every teammates' name. Liz is represented by E for Elizabeth.

They are tentatively penciled in to complete the swim by July 11, but the unpredictable nature of British weather, means she can't say for sure when the conditions will be right for this lengthy swim in choppy waters.

The Charlie Waller Trust is named after a 28-year-old actor who ostensibly had everything to live for when he took his own life in 1997. The charity is designed to help young people understand and talk openly about mental health and improve their wellbeing.

Liz says the charity is of great significance to one of her fellow 'Thames MARVELs' who has firsthand experience of the good work the charity do. Unfortunately, she became aware of the trust after someone close to her passed away after struggling with mental health issues.

Liz preparing for a winter swim with Yvonne Husbands

Swimming played a crucial role in Liz refinding her confidence six years ago when she was on the mend after overcoming breast cancer. She explained to the MK Citizen: "Swimming has always been my sport. It's the one sport I was able to do.

"I grew up with one leg shorter than the other and had to have operations on my leg, so at school I wasn't allowed to participate in a lot of outdoor sports. Being diagnosed with cancer came as a big shock to me, I was only 49, it was six weeks before my wedding.

"The chemotherapy was so exhausting, I was fortunate that I was a maths teacher and with schools being a big breeding ground for bugs, luckily I was given time off. But I struggled to do anything, I would go to yoga and halfway through I would have to stop, it became too much.

"Swimming was one of those things I did and had a go at as soon as I could. It really helped as, the chemotherapy had made me so exhausted to the point where I couldn't think straight, not being able to do simple things really knocks your confidence, you can think things will never get back to normal ever again. So getting back to swimming and being able to do that really did keep me sane.

"Cancer diagnosis and treatment caused me to lose faith in myself completely. You get so crushingly tired during chemotherapy that you can’t think straight, stand up for long or remember the simplest of things. The swim training and The Thames MARVELs has helped me to recover my strength and my confidence...and I’m hoping the Channel Crossing will be the final piece of the jigsaw to make me feel back to ‘normal’."

It was in 2016, two years removed from the cancer diagnosis that she met Debbie Vanner, an ironman triathlete. It was Debbie who encouraged her to start taking on longer swims and was key in helping Liz get to where she is now, looking to complete a major endurance challenge in famous water.

Liz is extremely grateful to her husband, Fran Hayes, who 'didn't flinch' after her cancer diagnosis and remains by her side.

Two of the big challenges Liz faces as someone who has always loved to swim, but has done so predominantly indoors, are the sea and the cold. Liz says she's only managed to complete four swims in the sea in her year-long training sessions. Despite swimming between England and France in the summertime, the water is expected to be around 13-14 degrees.

The former maths teacher is also looking forward to seeing how her swimming translates to the unpredictable waves and movements of the seas. Another weird quirk of the challenge, is getting used to being on a boat going at swimming speeds.

Although the team will be given tablets, Yvonne Husbands, a friend who has swam the channel before, advised that the boat will rock and slow speeds and there is a high chance all of them throw up.

The team have to follow a by the book approach to the relay. An official inspector will be on hand to watch their entries into the water and check to make sure nobody touches the boat during their hour swimming the channel.

To make sure the entirety of the channel is swam before taking over the proverbial baton, the next swimmer must start behind the one currently in the water, so every inch is swam collectively.

To find out more about the MARVELs you can visit their website here, the fundraising page is also available here. The Thames MARVELs team are on the brink of reaching their £10,000 fundraising goal at the time of writing.