Fiona Paterson wants victory in London

It didn't seem like much to worry about: just a bit of blood.

Fiona Paterson had experienced irregular vaginal bleeding for years: the strains of training for elite level rowing meant her period arrived erratically rather than like clockwork.

"We were doing huge kilometres, over 200 a week, six days a week, sometimes three sessions a day," Paterson - born in central Otago and educated in Dunedin - said.

"I thought it was quite acceptable under these circumstances to be very tired."

It would be, but the circumstances back in 2006 were not what Paterson thought they were. Rather than feeling the effects of intense training, her body was fighting the onset of clear cell cervical cancer. The exhaustion and the blood were warning signs Paterson was ignoring.

Clear cell cervical cancer is rare and aggressive. About a third of patients die within five years. In Paterson's favour were her youth - the disease can strike anyone, but is normally found in women in their 60s - and her fitness. The health and vitality which had won her a world under-23 gold medal was to be crucial in a much more important race against time.

"I had not been having cervical smears - you are supposed to start these at the age of 20 - so I was a good two years behind the game."

"It was a case of being uneducated and too wrapped up in what I was doing. If it wasn't an injury or something that kept me out of the boat it would be filed under 'I will get there'. My faults include being a bit of a procrastinator at some things, and also an ingrained thought pattern that if something is wrong working harder will fix it, Paterson said.

"So, I ignored my symptoms and trucked on getting worse performances and feeling exhausted. I had been experiencing symptoms for about six months before I ended up at the right doctor and being diagnosed."

By this time, a tumour the size of a small hen's egg was incubating inside her body. In a matter of days she went from a high performance centre to a hospital ward, undergoing a hysterectomy and starting radiation treatment and chemotherapy.

"From diagnosis it was about a month till the operation. There was a lot of information to digest and there were huge physical and emotional changes to come to terms with in such a short time. I compartmentalised it and dealt with the bits I had to at the time and slowly worked through others over time," Paterson said.

"I have always loved children. I was born clucky, so the fact I couldn't have my own children was hard. I come from a half-adopted, half-biological family, so I know there are alternative ways to make a family.

"During my operation slices of ovarian tissue were taken and are now stored in a freezer so when technology catches up that is another option."

Paterson experienced premature menopause as a result of the chemo and radiation therapy - "an experience I was hoping to do without but I had been warned could happen."

However, hot flushes and irritability were a small price to pay for the reassurance that her cancer was gone.

"Rowing gave me a focus and a time frame to get back," she said.

"I tried to keep routines and structure and even trained lightly during treatment. I was still a carded athlete so had access to physio, nutrition and sports psych which helped a lot with my recovery. Rowing NZ was incredibly supportive and patient through this time as well."

With masterly understatement, Paterson admits things "weren't ideal", but she saw no reason why cancer should change her life - or sink her ambitions of rowing at the Olympics.

"There are ways around everything if you want it enough. I quickly found if you can surround yourself with the right people, those with expertise and the people that really care about you, anything is achievable.

"I was very lucky; I had the most amazing support."

Paterson was back rowing in the women's eight a year after her cancer diagnosis and aiming for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but was not at her best.

"I was a smaller, weaker athlete and hormones were an issue. I persevered and after we didn't qualify for Beijing I decided I needed to take a year to sort this and look after myself. I was gutted after not qualifying and vowed the next Olympic cycle would be different."

Before getting right for rowing, Paterson decided she needed to get right with herself. She took 2009 off to get her mind back in shape, only worrying about getting her body toned for competition when she wanted to.

"It was also really nice to spend some time with my family - my mother died in 2007 - and it felt right and was comforting to spend some time at home."

Paterson's path back to the rowing big-time began with securing a place in the women's quad scull for the World Cup regattas, before moving on to the women's double scull for the 2010 season. At the New Zealand team trials that year she hopped in a boat with Anna Reymer - a former team-mate in the eight. Apart from time out for Reymer to have back surgery, they have rowed together ever since, and won a bronze medal at the 2011 world championships in Bled, Slovenia.

"In the eight I loved the amount of fight Anna had; we always got on well, despite being polar opposite people," Paterson said.

"We have had a lot of bumps along the way, especially this year, but every crew does though. I'm sure it makes you stronger and a tighter unit. The journey has been a bit messy but it's nice to be settled with a good partner and coach."

There was another milestone beyond the World Champs in 2011; the fifth anniversary of Paterson's diagnosis. Five years without a recurrence of cancer means she is "in the clear", albeit ever watchful. Regular check-ups are not something to be delayed by training and competing.

Right now, Paterson is as fit as she has ever have been, in a good place mentally, and excited about finally making her first Olympics.

"I do see how people can see it's an achievement just making it to the Olympics and that's like a victory in itself for me, but I've never really thought like that," she said.

"That alone wouldn't have satisfied me and if I didn't want more than that I couldn't be in a boat with someone. I guess I believed I could get to the Olympics with a chance of medalling. If I had thought another way it probably wouldn't have happened.

"The thought of what could have been won't cross my mind when I'm there. There is no denying the experience has shaped me as a person and taught me things about myself that benefit my rowing - and I do have a sense of how lucky I am - but there's a time and a place to think about everything."

Fairfax Media