Real Life

Kate’s courageous walk: ‘I grieved not being able to have kids’

Kate Wightman hiked the length of New Zealand to raise awareness of gynaecological cancer
Kate celebrating with her arms in the air at the end of the walkPictures: Salt & She Creative

She was a professional cyclist who competed all over Europe, but the biggest challenge wasn’t racing against the world’s best athletes. Or overcoming aggressive ovarian cancer, which robbed her of a chance to have children.

It was walking 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff to raise money and awareness for gynaecological cancer.

The plucky 30-year-old completed the Te Araroa Trail in February, four months after setting off on the gruelling walk with just a backpack and tent for company.

“I always wanted to walk Te Araroa, but it was one of those bucket-list items that you never get around to,” laughs Kate. “I decided to walk the length of the country to raise not just money but awareness of gynaecological cancer because there’s so little information about how to detect these cancers and the treatment options are very limited.”

Kate, who works as a business advisor in Hamilton but trained as a scientist, did most of the walk solo because her partner Dan Gardner, a recently retired professional cyclist, was competing in Japan at the time.

“I had a roster of friends and family who joined me for a day or a few days,” she tells. “And I met lots of tourists walking the trail who became good friends.”

But Dan made sure to join Kate at the finish line in Bluff, where he surprised her with a marriage proposal!

“Not only did I raise $53,000 for gynaecological cancer research and spread the word about this condition, but when I finished, Dan got down on one knee and asked me to marry him! It was the perfect ending to an awesome adventure.”

Dan proposing to Kate in the middle of the road
Dan’s proposal stopped Kate in her tracks!

Although the couple haven’t set a wedding date, they’re thinking about adoption.

“I probably grieved not being able to have children more than I grieved having cancer! But there’s kids out there who need homes. Even though I haven’t given birth to them, I can still be a mother to them.”

Kate wore through two pairs of hiking boots during her epic walk. She either slept in her tent, in DoC huts or with so-called Trail Angels, members of the public who allow trail walkers to have a hot shower and camp on their lawn for a small donation.

Despite bad weather and flooded rivers, she was never tempted to give up.

“Some days when the trail was muddy, it was really slow going. I felt like I was spending 13 hours of physical exertion without making any headway. That was the most challenging part. But I never felt unsafe. To be honest, I probably felt safer in the bush by myself than walking down some city streets!”

Three weeks before Kate reached Bluff, a niggling hip injury threatened to derail her journey.

Kate and Dan on a hike in front of beautiful mountain and water scenery

“It was quite debilitating, but I’m not the kind of person who gives up, so I pushed through.”

Ironically, it was that hip injury that led to Kate’s cancer diagnosis in 2022.

During the five years she and her British partner lived in Belgium, Kate often experienced abdominal pain. But subsequent GP and specialist visits assured her it was nothing.

“The first time, they sent me home from hospital with paracetamol!” she recalls. “Every doctor I saw brushed it off. I eventually thought it might be related to endometriosis or being a high-performing athlete.”

But then an MRI for her hip injury showed enlarged ovaries. Doctors diagnosed Kate with three types of cancer in her ovaries and uterus. By this time, the cancers had unfortunately spread to her diaphragm and bowel.

Following a hysterectomy, she underwent five months of chemotherapy.

“My surgeon actually told me something very valuable. It was that if you’re able to be active, it can reduce the side effects of chemo,” she says. “I started cycling on a stationary bike because I wasn’t allowed to ride on the road. I also walked for hours. That’s where my love of walking came from. This was when I started toying with the idea of walking the length of New Zealand.

Kate standing at the bottom on New Zealand surrounded by her family and friends
Team effort: Friends and family kept Kate company when they could.

“It was a nice goal to have – if I could get through treatment, then I could get out there and help others.”

In the meantime, the couple are busy mentoring athletes with REHUB, a company they started last year that fits around their day jobs. Kate’s also learning Dutch and training twice a day for her first Ironman competition in July.

She says, “I like to have a few challenges to work towards.”

If there’s one thing the past few years have taught Kate, it’s to appreciate her lot.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in life,” she muses. “But walking the length of New Zealand showed me the importance of taking a step back and enjoying what you have, whether that’s being out in the bush or having a hot shower! And the importance of a mindset that you can achieve anything if you have a good attitude.”

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