You might expect an 84-year-old woman with terminal lung cancer to take her foot off the gas and live life at a gentle pace – but that just won’t work for Eileen.
Eileen Hewson turned 84 last month and she is living with lung cancer. But she has always loved travelling the world and isn’t ready to give that up just yet.
Now, she wants to prove that neither age nor a cancer diagnosis has to be a barrier to achieving your dreams. She has plans to visit the Himalayas again later this year.
‘I have a longing to visit remote places,’ Eileen said. ‘Then I fall in love with them and make friends, then I am hooked.
‘I mostly go to the Himalayan regions – the more remote the better. I love to get underneath the skin of the country and not skim across the surface like most people do; take pictures and move on to the next place. There is no value in it.’
Eileen has been travelling all her life. In 1977 she climbed 18,000 feet higher than Base Camp on an Everest trek. She visited Ladakh for the first time in 1978, four years after it was first opened to foreign people, and she still goes back to visit as she has friends over there who she has now known for more than 40 years.
Eileen’s Himalayan travels have taken her to Kashgar, the Silk Road, Yunnan China, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kashmir, Himachal, Pradesh, Ladakh, Zanskar, Nepal and the Falkland Islands. She even wrote a book about her expedition to Everest.
‘Other travelling highlights have been discovering Ceylon or Sri Lanka again, I have friendships there which have lasted decades,’ Eileen explains.
‘More recently, I finally travelled to Mustang the lost Tibetan kingdom in Nepal. I had waited more 50 years for it to open. When a road (if you can call it that!) was built five years ago, that was my chance to finally go.’
To be told that she had lung cancer was incredibly hard for Eileen, but not for the reason you might expect.
‘The lung cancer diagnosis was devastating not because I might die, but because I was going to lose my journey to Mustang which I had waited for for a lifetime,’ explains Eileen.
‘It simply brought death a little nearer, after all, I am going to die sometime and at my age that will be sooner than later.
‘The last three years since diagnosis have been brilliant, and I have lived life to the full.
‘My outlook on life hasn’t changed, the disease has made no difference to me. Except I can’t afford to waste time.’
Eileen had hoped that her next trip would be to Tibet, but so far she has been unlucky.
‘My first attempt at Kathmandu failed when my companion who has a Sri Lankan passport was refused, the second time the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu closed for the two weeks I planned to come, so I couldn’t get a visa and now there is coronavirus,’ she explains.
‘Although my condition is stable at the moment and I have six months between scans, I can’t afford to wait. I needed this trip so I could finish the book I am writing about the Tibetan lands.’
But Eileen will not be deterred. She plans to keep travelling, even if she can’t get to her first-choice destination. Because, as she says, time is of the essence.
‘Here is my quandary, I am 84 and should not really be going into high altitude, I have cancer – which is not a problem at the moment – but one has to face facts. Age is creeping in and I had better do all my difficult travelling while I can,’ she tells us.
‘Time is running out. I have searched around and decided to return to Zanskar, another Himalayan kingdom.
‘For others of my age group who wish to travel to difficult areas, research it thoroughly, don’t ask anyone’s advice – they will soon try to stop you. Just do it.’
That has always been Eileen’s ethos. She refuses to listen to any advice that weakens her or puts her off from achieving her dreams. She says that people are forever telling women of her age what they can’t do – and she is forever proving them wrong.
‘A strong woman is a woman who says she will take action and then does it,’ she says. ‘A strong woman never gives in.’
Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in the world of sport and fitness.
A Sport England study found that 40% of women were avoiding physical activity due to a fear of judgement.
But, contrary to the limited images we so often see, women of any age, size, race or ability can be active and enjoy sport and fitness.
We hope that by normalising diverse depictions of women who are fit, strong and love their bodies, we will empower all women to shed their self-consciousness when it comes to getting active.
Each week we talk to women who are redefining what it means to be strong and achieving incredible things.