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“Swimming outdoors helps me cope with the loss of my daughter”

After losing his daughter to cancer, Alan Holmes has found that outdoor swimming helps with stress and lifts his mood during dark times.

My story started in the early part of 2006 with my grandson, Matthew, aged three – one of identical twins diagnosed with a brain tumour. The news of his condition came as a real shock as there had been no history of cancer within our family. He was admitted to hospital and went through surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The treatment was successful, although Matthew was left with some balance and coordination issues. It was a stressful experience, although being given the all-clear after 12 months was a massive relief to us all.

The fall into darkness

Unfortunately, our joy was short lived. Within a few weeks I received the dreadful news that Matthew’s mum, my daughter, had been diagnosed with cancer, and she was put through a similar treatment pattern of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The treatment was once again successful, and we hoped that life would soon get back to some sort of normality.

The next five years passed by with annual medical checks each time showing the all-clear. Then in June 2012, when my daughter was training for the London Marathon, a scan revealed that her cancer had returned; this time it would be life limiting. The initial prognosis gave her a timescale of three to six months, but three weeks later, on the 7 July, my daughter lost her fight. I was devastated. In the end it was so sudden, and I had great difficulty coping. I soon entered a very dark period of my life.

In the meantime, Matthew had continued having his annual medical checks. Then in June 2020, a scan found that a tumour had returned in the same area within his brain as before. On the 7 July, the 8th anniversary of his mother’s death, Matthew was admitted to hospital for surgery to remove the tumour. The surgery was successful, and the initial prognosis was good, but after further scans to establish a treatment plan, it was found that the cancer had infiltrated his brain stem and this time it was non-operable. This is now a life limiting condition controlled with radiotherapy and chemotherapy. By this point, I had reached an all-time low and pretty much given up on everything. I felt completely helpless.


“I would recommend to anyone who is struggling with life issues to give open water swimming a go. For me, it’s the best thing I have ever done.”

Out of the darkness

My son has been open water swimming since April 2020. He was concerned for my mental health and was pressing me very hard to go swimming with him. I was 71 years old and had rarely swam since my mid-teens. I didn’t really enjoy swimming and had never swum in the sea, rivers or lakes, but against my better judgement I agreed in November to go swimming with him in the sea. I borrowed a wetsuit – which was two sizes too big – and off we went. I was quite anxious as I was concerned that I couldn’t touch the bottom, and that there are ‘things’ living in the sea. I swam 200 metres in total, stopping every 50 metres for a rest holding on to a tow float.

Since then I have completed more than 60 swims. My longest to date has been around 1200 metres. My fitness has improved, and I have lost some of the weight I had gained through inactivity. My limitation now is the length of time I can stay in water without getting cold. I am planning to sign up for some coaching on technique so that I can swim a bit faster. I have swum in the sea at Cullercoates Bay, various lakes in Northumberland and the North Tyne, and I absolutely love it. Quite unexpectedly, I have found that swimming helps with the stress and has dramatically lifted my mood. Even on the days when I don’t feel up for it, every time I have a swim I always feel so much better physically and mentally. I would recommend to anyone who is struggling with life issues to give open water swimming a go. For me, it’s the best thing I have ever done.

I have also been looking for a way to support Matthew. Despite his personal prognosis, he wants to raise funds for Brain Tumour Research to help others. To give me a purpose, I have set myself a target of swimming 100 kilometres over the next year. I am raising funds for Brain Tumour Research with ‘Alan’s 100k for Matthew’. www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alan-holmes7

What’s your Swim Story? Email: editor@outdoorswimmer.com

This article featured in the February issue of Outdoor Swimmer magazine. Click here to buy the whole issue.

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.