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News article  2006-08-04 - Cancer freed me up to be my true self

Elaine celebrates her 1982 Star Walk victory with Olympic race walker dad Lawrence

Love of animals gave battler Elaine a new lease of life

Ex-athlete used her competitive instincts to win the greatest victory of all after hitting rock bottom

"I don't think people understand me when I say it, but I have a lot to thank cancer for, it gave me a new life"

The words of Elaine Sharp, alpaca farmer, former athlete and one of life's true battlers.

Nine years ago Elaine had just had two operations to remove lumps from her breast and was waiting for chemotherapy treatment to zap any remaining cancer cells. Then she found another lump and was told she needed more surgery.

That's when she hit rock bottom. When she started to think the new lump might give her a way out, that it might be a blessing if she went to sleep and didn't wake up again. But that's also when her life changed.

In those dark, depressing days Elaine rediscovered a fascination for animals she first had when she was four years old. It was a fascination that gave her life a new beginning.

"I had been reading a lot about llamas and alpacas and I had sort of been fascinated by them since I had a ride on a llama at Blackpool when I was four," said 42-year-old Elaine. "I knew I had six months of chemotherapy to come and I needed a distraction. My husband Nigel took me all over the country looking at alpacas and llamas.

"We ended up getting one of each. To be honest they got me through the chemotherapy. Even on bad days they would make me smile. There is something so reassuring about them. Something in their eyes that says 'we are going to get through this'."

And get through it she did, but there were setbacks. Elaine had already overcome surgery to remove a crushed disc from her spine which has left her with permanent back pain. She had five operations for cancer, including a hysterectomy and survived blood poisoning - but her love for alpacas, and a smart business brain, gave her a new career and a new lease of life.

Elaine wanted to breed alpacas and she and husband Nigel remortgaged their home to buy 42 acres of land in Mayfield Valley, Ringinglow.

"I must admit that when you are faced with your own mortality you take a step back and look at life differently," said Elaine. "The cancer had a massive effect on Nigel and myself. You think to yourself: 'What am I doing with my life?' We decided to go for it. I knew there were not many alpacas in this country but I think there is great potential for the market in fleeces, they make such luxurious clothes."

Elaine, right, with Keeley Emery and 'Mary' born on Christmas Eve

Elaine and Nigel now have 80 alpacas and six llamas, and business is thriving. But the farm isn't just about work. They also have two goats, three rabbits, two guinea pigs, eight ducks, three geese, two cats, three dogs and five horses.

Elaine said: "The cancer made me an animal person, I was never like that before. If it had not been for the cancer I don't think I would be doing what I'm doing now.

"Those first two, Marty and Georgie, were a life saver at a time when I was really vulnerable. I felt such an empathy and closeness to them. I can't imagine not having them now, they filled such a gap in my life.

"We had thought that one day we would have children but we were so close and did everything together and had a great life that we said we would wait five years.

"We put it off for another year after that, then another. Then the cancer came and I didn't know how I would end up. I didn't want to leave Nigel with a young child. We had decided that we would not have a family so the hysterectomy was no big trauma for us in that sense."

Now Elaine, winner of the Star Walk in 1982 and daughter of Olympic race walker Lawrence Alien, has a life that is full, up to 13 hours a day, seven days a week.

A wiry and energetic woman, Elaine buzzes about the Mayfield farm talking to the animals, encouraging staff and outlining the next phase of development.

"We have the visitors centre open full-time now and we have just taken someone on to help out with the accounts and office work. "It's not like coming to work for me. I love mucking out and feeding. I love being hands-on with the animals. It's my life now and I don't know what I'd do with out them."

Hillsborough-born Elaine left Myers Grove school at 16 and worked in the fines and fees department of Sheffield magistrates Court. She ran cross country for Yorkshire but feels she didn't really have her heart in athletics.

"I enjoyed the running and walking but it was never really for me. This is what I want to do. I am in good health at the moment and I don't worry about the cancer coming back.

Then she takes a deep breath, considers her words before she looks up with tears in her eyes and says: "If I could turn the clock back and not have cancer I wouldn't do it. Without it I would not have found the life I have now.

"Cancer freed me up to be my true self."

Article by Martin Smith. Originally appeared in the Sheffield Star, 4/8/2006