26 October 2016Last updated

Real Life

‘Cancer gave me a chance to go on an expedition’

When Sadie Windmill was diagnosed with leukaemia, it drove her to sell all her possessions and set sail for a different kind of life…

As told to Kim Willis
12 Aug 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • After rounds of chemo, I got the all-clear, and seized my second chance with both hands – my very own voyage of discovery.

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Silencing my alarm, I hauled myself out of bed. It was 6am and dark and miserable outside as I threw on my warmest coat and opened the front door to another bleak British winter morning. Our two dogs, Tinker and Scrappy, needed walking before I went to work.

By 7.45am I was at the Crestwood School, Dudley, where I worked as assistant head teacher. The day would then speed on – meetings, assembly, teaching, dealing with naughty kids, attending social services meetings, police meetings, parent meetings and school counsellor meetings.

Somehow, I’d make it home by about 5.30pm, exhausted. Life was whizzing by, but I was on a good salary and whenever I wondered what I could do instead, I could never think of anything that’d pay as well. Back then, it felt like my salary mattered more than finding a new kind of happiness.

My husband Jules, 46, worked as a manager for an energy company. We were locked into a life where career and status were of paramount importance.

We loved sailing and had a 14m boat called Leslie Frank, but we’d never sailed further than Brittany in France or Ireland for a few weeks each summer. We’d romanticise an idea of packing up our lives 10 years from now and, if we could afford it, embarking on a sailing adventure.

‘One day!’ we’d say as we made distant plans. ‘When we’ve paid off the mortgage.’

With the dream a decade away, we concentrated on mortgage repayments and saving up the funds we were sure we needed to set sail. We were living in the future, beavering away on a plan to be happy one day.

But the more we earned, the more stuff we thought we needed. Our plan kept moving further away. ‘Ten years to go. Or perhaps 11…’ I’d say as Jules and I looked at the bank statements again. We’d rework the figures and decide we needed more money in the bank before we set off. Then we’d go on a weekend away to Oxford and dine at a Raymond Blanc restaurant. I’d spend a few hundred pounds on clothes, justifying it because I worked hard. I could never imagine giving up these luxuries, or wanting to live without them.

Then, while we were putting off change, change came looking for us.

In February 2012, my neck swelled up. The swelling wouldn’t go away and I felt tired and started crying all the time, which wasn’t like me at all. My gums started to bleed too. I saw my GP, but was told it was just mumps.

I kept insisting it was something more. I knew my body and something didn’t feel right. So in June that year, I decided to go private and pay to see a head and neck surgeon.

The surgeon, based at BMI The Priory Hospital in Birmingham, ordered tests, and the very next day called me in for the results. Jules came with me and we sat before the surgeon, never for one minute expecting to hear life-changing news. I had never been seriously ill before in my life.

‘We’ve found cancerous cells,’ he said. ‘You have chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.’

Jules and I stared at him blankly, the hold we had on each other’s hands tightening.

‘Oh,’ was all I could manage to say. I was stunned. It didn’t feel like it was really happening to me.

‘I will operate tomorrow, but then you’ll need to see an oncologist who will want to give you an intensive course of chemotherapy,’ the surgeon continued. His words hung in the air as I tried to comprehend what lay ahead.

‘Whatever it takes,’ Jules and I agreed.

And from then on, life became a whirlwind of operations, tubes, needles and hospital appointments. Jules and I made a pact to remain positive no matter how hard it got. I also wanted to be proactive, improving my diet, getting lots of fresh air, meditating and living in the moment.

I realised then that all the money in the world couldn’t help me, and I didn’t need it. Nothing mattered anymore. Nothing but health, happiness and being together.

I soon started chemotherapy at the same hospital. My consultant haemato-oncologist, Dr Prem Mahendra, took such good care of me she became a friend. After just one cycle of chemo the lumps were no longer visible and the swelling went down. The three-month tests showed the chemo was working. All the tumours were gone. I had another three months of chemo, just to ensure every last cancerous cell was zapped.

One day Prem sat Jules and I down in her office and smiled. ‘I’m very happy to be giving you the all-clear!’ she said. I bounced out of my chair and hugged her.

She’d given me a second chance. No more waiting 10 years. Jules and I knew we couldn’t put our dreams off a day longer.

‘Let’s start our adventure,’ I said to Jules. ‘We’ll shut this life down and open another one.’

And that’s exactly what we did. We knew we’d have to live modestly, but if we were careful with our money, we could start our adventure now. We didn’t want to put this off any longer.

We sold everything. Furniture, our camper van, even quilts I’d handmade. We gave the rest of our possessions to charity shops, friends and family. Giving away all my designer work suits was so cathartic – we’d have no need for those where we were going. I kept the kind of clothes I could wash in a bucket and never iron – that was my new style.

In April 2013, with Tinker and Scrappy in tow, our little boat became our home. We started in the Channel Islands. We’ve sailed to Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Morocco and the Balearic Islands in Spain.

Our old lives were hectic and we never had time to enjoy each other’s company. Now, we practice yoga and meditation every day – something the old me would have laughed at. We swim, read, go for walks and paddle out in the kayak. Tinker is the top dolphin spotter and once she’s alerted us, we watch dolphins swim alongside the boat.

When we arrive somewhere, we drop anchor, chat to locals, and go to the markets to buy fresh food. We generate our own solar and wind power, catch fish to barbecue, grow lettuce and bake our own bread.

When we’re ready, we spread the navigation maps out in the cockpit and together, we decide where our adventures will take us next.

I still keep in regular contact with Prem, my wonderful consultant. I return for check-ups every six months, but so far I’m doing really well.

In the last year we’ve sailed to Sardinia in Italy, the Italian volcanic islands, Albania and the Greek Ionian islands. We then went to Malta and Sicily.

We are now back in Greece and ready to head through to Turkey, up to Istanbul, and through the Black Sea, Georgia, Russia, Romania and Bulgaria.

It’s a vagabond lifestyle, and we have to be really careful with what little money we have. We’re time-rich though cash-poor, but there’s something so rewarding in living a life off the grid; spending time, not money.

My most valued possessions now are those I carry in my head and heart. Plus, a good internet connection so we can keep in contact with friends. And the sea charts that guide us through our journey.

We see more of our family than we did before. We don’t have children, but friends and family have joined us for legs of our trip. Watching my mum eating octopus for the first time is a moment I’ll never forget.

No two days are the same, but we rise with the sun, look out for dolphins, sunfish and flying tuna. If we’re lucky we’ll see a whale. Last year we spent a day in Cartagena in Spain, watching street parades and eating tapas. The whole day cost us £10 (Dh48).

I’d never want to go through cancer again, but it changed the way I wanted to spend my life. I was so fixed on the future, I forgot to live in the present. Cancer made me take a big risk and give up financial security to enjoy every second of life.

Sadie Windmill, 44, is from Kingswinford, West Midlands, England, but now lives life on the move

As told to Kim Willis

As told to Kim Willis