Elaine Shallcross @shuvitcancer Interview

Illustrations by Gaurab Thakali.

Given the extraordinary success of her @shuvitcancer campaign I’m going to assume most of you will have heard of Elaine Shallcross by now. She’s the 68-year-old grandmother that has been raising money for breast cancer research by learning how to shuvit. This without ever having set foot on a skateboard… And whilst of course fighting the disease herself.
Now I don’t know about you guys but between the crushing result of the last general election and start of this global fucking pandemic, Elaine came into my life at a time when the world felt pretty broken. I’m not going to claim that following her journey has completely dissipated the lingering feeling of impending doom but it’s certainly not often that skateboarding is used to share such a powerful message of hope. And boy did this one get shared: within a week of us reposting her videos she’d completely blown up on Instagram, hitting her £10,000 target months before she’d anticipated it. Everyone from JB Gillet to Tony Hawk started posting shuvit videos to promote her page, brands sent her everything from extra puffy éS accels to all the of protective gear she could fit on her body and most importantly, she was flooded with messages of encouragement and support. We all know what it’s like to be with a mate who won’t stop banging on about Tiago’s switch back tails despite being at a table with someone who clearly doesn’t skate; this interview is a nice reminder that we can actually be a welcoming community.

– Arthur Derrien

Could I start off by getting a little bit of general info about you? I know you grew up in Coventry and currently live in Aberdeen but that’s about it…
Ok so I graduated many years ago… I got a Geology degree and worked for about four years in Zambia as a mineralogist and then worked for about the same amount of time in Canada in the oil and gas industry. We had my first daughter out there in the 1980s then moved (again!) to Indonesia. I then didn’t work for about 10 years when I started having a family. After that we moved to Aberdeen and when the kids were a bit older I went back to work, this time for the University of Aberdeen where I worked for about 24 years, up until 2016 when I retired.

Hence the fundraiser being in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen…

Okay and when exactly did you get diagnosed with breast cancer? Also, if you don’t mind, could you maybe talk us through your journey with it up until today?
Absolutely. I don’t mind speaking about it at all… I think it actually helps me. Plus it’s important for it to be discussed openly as that helps raise awareness. I was diagnosed with primary breast cancer in July 2018, so had the full course of treatment with chemotherapy, an operation to remove the tumours and radiotherapy… Everything was looking really good and it looked like I had been cured but only four months after I’d finished my radiotherapy it was found that I had lesions in my lymph nodes, so it had actually spread… That was in September last year, so I started treatment with chemotherapy in November which was due to finish in April this year but had to be cut short because my doctors were worried about my age and the risk of me catching Covid-19 with being on chemo… So yeah I’ve currently been taken off it and we’re waiting for scans to see how we go from there. But I’m optimistic that the chemo has done quite a good job…

Well you’re looking really healthy!
Yeah and I feel okay. It’s just the energy levels really… And I’ve had one or two problems with the chemo affecting my blood and making me very anaemic, so I’d get out of breath very quickly but that seems to be improving.

Which is obviously less than ideal if you’re trying to learn how to skateboard…
Yeah especially with the repetitive shuvit practice.

What made you decide to raise money for breast cancer research and when did skateboarding enter the picture?
I started fundraising for breast cancer research at the University of Aberdeen in 2018 about two months after I got diagnosed, but at first I was making beanies… I still do and I still sell them! I’ve made over five thousand pounds from selling beanies. Me and my daughter also raised money by going on the Aberdeen Kilt Walk… Every year there’s a big fundraiser here where people wear their kilts and walk a certain amount of miles and get sponsored for it. We went on it last year and also raised 1000 pounds from that. And then for the skateboarding one… I think it was when my daughter Jenny and her husband Steve, who is very passionate about skateboarding, were over at Christmas and I was saying I wanted to do a fundraiser that was a bit different… And he said to me, ‘why don’t you try a skateboard trick!’ I’d never even touched a skateboard so I had no idea what that involved really, but I said, ‘well that sounds good!’ He then went on to explain that this is something he thought the skateboarding community would really engage with and I’d get ‘quite a lot of support’.

Were you at all unsure about it? Like did you have any negative preconceptions about skateboarding?
No not all, but I also didn’t know what I was getting myself into…
Anyway that’s when Steve told me about this trick called the shuvit that would be perfect. I didn’t know what it was but I thought ‘well okay’ and then he came up with ‘shuvit cancer’, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. It sends a message to cancer from me, telling it ‘I’m not putting up with this!’ but also it’s a way of attracting people to what I’m doing for cancer research. So he set me up on Instagram and I still remember being sat here just before Christmas saying ‘oh my god I’ve got a hundred followers!’ and him replying something like ‘well maybe we’ll get 200 by Christmas Day’, which I of course thought was impossible… And then we just watched it take off! Even Steve didn’t think it would get so big. It’s been absolutely incredible, it really has. And not just for all the people supporting and giving money, it’s also all the lovely messages I’ve been getting. Everybody is so encouraging and supportive! On days when I feel a bit fed up with myself they give me energy and determination to get this done.
And it’s been like that from the very beginning… For instance when Steve took me to Simon Burnside’s shop in Banchory to buy me a skateboard, Simon who I’d never met just gave me a full one for free! I couldn’t believe it. I remember thinking ‘you don’t even know me!’ and that luckily I’d only need it for a few days and would make sure I’d return it to him after that, ha ha. As I said I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into…

Aaaw hearing stuff like that makes me so happy.
Well I honestly can’t think of another group of people, in another sport or even anywhere else really, that would have come together for something like this in the way skateboarders have… And for me! Nobody has ever turned around and said to me: ‘you’re old, what are you doing? It’s embarrassing.’ It’s been the complete opposite! And without all this I would have never had an insight into what this group of people are really like. I was speaking to one person that messaged me and he was saying that people are sometimes under the impression that skateboarders are antisocial and don’t care about anybody else but really, the few that actually are like that, well they’d be like that regardless of if they were on a board on not. And I agree. That applies to anybody in any kind of group, some will always behave badly but it’s not because of the activity.

And another thing that amazes me is just how athletic it is… I mean I’d seen kids around Aberdeen roundabout doing tricks on their skateboards, but it’s only when you sit down and properly look at what they do that you realise… It blows my mind really. Because you’re not attached to the board! It’s not like a snowboard or anything like that! Some of the stuff I see I just can’t believe.

Have you found yourself watching a lot of skateboarding since you’ve launched the campaign?
Yes! And so many people send me videos and I watch as many as I can… And then all the pros, like the really, really good guys. I mean wow! And all ages… Some of the videos I get are from little kids and they’re not just going along on their boards, they’re doing real tricks!
I know a lot of people in the skateboarding community aren’t sure about it being in the Olympics, which I can understand, but one of the positives about that is that it would really show everyone just how skilful and athletic you have to be to do it.

Who is your favourite skater?
Your question puts me in a difficult position. I’m impressed by everyone who has contributed shuvit videos from the ultra pros to the kids and beginners. But if I had to choose one it would be Austin Sparks (@that_guy_with_one_leg). Why? So many reasons: he’s a cancer survivor and, even though he’s an amputee, he doesn’t let that stop him from doing something he loves. What he does on a skateboard is amazing; a great role model for people who have also lost limbs. I’d like to think we have some things in common – we have or had cancer and we don’t let anything stop us from pushing ourselves and overcoming obstacles. Thank you Austin for being my role model.

Beyond the fulfilment that comes from raising money for a good cause like this, in what ways has the campaign had a positive impact on you and your family’s lives?
Yeah so obviously the bottom line is the fundraising and it’s been extremely successful but on a personal level knowing that there’s so many people out there that want me to do this… I don’t know how to explain it, it’s like I know everybody. There’s all these people I can turn to and say I’m having a really rotten day, wondering if I’m going to be able to do the shuvit and get tons of messages back. Also my daughter Jenny really struggled with my diagnosis, she was worrying about it a lot and finding it hard to come to terms with. She said to me once that she felt like she was in a permanent state of darkness… Until this campaign took off! And that’s because she’s had as much support from it as I have!
Cancer puts you in such a lonely place… When you go through it, it’s hard to relate to anyone because everyone goes through it mentally in their own way. Obviously physically it’s challenging but it’s in your head that it’s the hardest. You’re always battling to be positive and not dwell on if things got worse. This campaign really got us all out of this dark place and has given us something to plan for and to practice… Jenny’s also started to skate now and she loves it. Up until they had to stay at home because of Covid-19 she was out as much as she could practising with Steve! So yeah it’s been great for us both physically and mentally.

Do you think you’ll keep skating after July 10?
I really hope so… I’ve met so many lovely people that I feel like I can’t really walk away from it now. And it’s just good exercise! Obviously there’s days when I can’t do anything because of the chemo but when I can it makes me feel so much better!

Given the response to the campaign, has it at any point felt overwhelming?
What I find the most difficult is when I get videos from children who have cancer. I got one from a young boy who was very poorly and was saying that once he was better he was going to get back on his board and do a shuvit! I find that most difficult to cope with… Because I…(voice now quivering) I just really don’t want children to get cancer. It’s a part of life you know, but hearing that boy I just can’t help but think, ‘this just isn’t right’. So sometimes, especially given the amount of messages I receive, I have to say to myself okay well tonight I’m going to step away for a few hours. Just to get calm, gather myself a bit, put stuff into perspective… And then come back to it. But no I’ve never thought ‘this is too much’, it’s just learning when to step away and come back.

Also even if it’s tough, there must be some comfort in the fact that like with this boy, what you’re doing is giving people hope?
Absolutely. And I’ve found that messages from skateboarders going through cancer or that have had cancer all say the same: skateboarding is a saviour. When they can, they get on their board as it helps them get away from it and when they can’t, it gives them that extra determination to beat it. It makes them determined in thinking ‘I’m going to get back on my board one day.’ And again that’s not just in the sense of wanting to get out and experience it physically; it comes back to all the support they get from their community.

The goal you’ve set yourself is to land a rolling shuvit by July 10th this year. With so many people watching your progression, do you ever get scared you aren’t going to be able to land it?
Oh yeah… Of course I’m scared. But obviously I’m working on it and there’s this lovely guy called Mike Hume who is the skateboard manager at TX Skatepark in Aberdeen who’s been helping me. We had one lesson at a skatepark before we were all on lockdown at home and we’ve been holding lessons on a video link. And he’s been teaching me in absolutely the right way, starting from the very basics like teaching me how to jump off the board safely… And he’s very patient ha ha. I’m practising the shuvit movement everyday and I’ve started practising some pushing around the house. And I feel like I’m getting better at being upright … It’s slow progress but if I build up my confidence I think I should be able to do it. I actually asked Mike the other day: ‘be honest, am I going to be able to do this shuvit, rolling, by July?’ and he said ‘yes, absolutely!’

Yeah 100%. When I saw the video of you doing the little pushes around the house the other day I thought: ‘okay it’s on!’
Brilliant ha ha. It’s so good to hear that because it’s only tiny little bits of improvement you know? But I’m thinking if I just keep at it and don’t get too worried, I’ll get there… It’s mainly my confidence really.
Yeah… And that’ll come naturally if you keep skating.

With everyone constantly giving you tips, do you ever find it hard to know what advice to follow? Or even with everyone wanting to send you stuff… Like how do you filter all that?
Yes it can be difficult, but I have Mike, who as far as I’m concerned is my coach, so I’ll always go to either him or Steve if I have a question.

Could you tell me a little bit more about the specific research you’re raising this money for?
Yes. In 2018 I met the team who research into breast cancer at the University of Aberdeen. The lady in charge of it, Professor Valerie Speirs, gave me a tour of her lab and she told me all about her work. It was really inspiring… She says it might take 20 years but she wants to get to the stage where routine checks using biomarkers will find women who are more likely to develop breast cancer in their lifetime… So we’d be able to identify the women at risk before the cancer develops, check them regularly, and treat them before they even get cancer. I want it to get to the stage where thanks to her research, my family, my daughters, and my granddaughter no longer have to worry about getting breast cancer anymore. And I know she’ll do it! She’s so engaged, so determined…

Has she been following the campaign closely?
Oh yeah I think so. She even said that she’ll be able to tell us exactly what the money we’ve raised has allowed her to do. Whether it’s a particular bit of equipment or a study she wants to do I don’t know, but she said she’d be able to tell us. Because I think it’s even more meaningful for people who have supported me to know what their money is going to… I set out a target of £10,000 at the beginning…

And it’ll have probably doubled by the time this comes out!
It’s more than doubled now! The JustGiving page is just the donations, it doesn’t include the Gift Aid or the Kilt Walk my daughter Jenny and I did last year. I reckon I’m at about £21,000 right now.

Wooow that’s amazing!
Isn’t it!

I bet the whole family is really proud.
They are. They probably think I’m a bit mad but I know they’re very proud.

Given the success of yours, do you have any helpful tips for anyone thinking of launching a fundraising campaign for a similar cause?
I think first off you need a lot of support. I’m very lucky to have my family helping me… I would not manage to run the Instagram on my own. Even with my two daughters, one of my daughter’s friends and Steve helping me, we barely manage!
Also I think it’s a case of finding something that’s different enough for it to grab people’s attention. This is successful because it’s skateboarding but of course also because of my age… It’s not a cake sale you know? And then once you’ve got that it’s just a case of really getting it out there and telling everyone about it. I was lucky because from working at the University I got to meet the Development Trust team who involved me in the social media they do, the communications team put out press releases… And there’s that thing of keeping people updated. It’s been such a journey for me and it’s been going for such a long time that I really had to show people that I was practising and that I am getting a little bit better…

Yeah I think that’s why I think skating lends itself so well to something like this… There are endless tiny incremental steps you can document to keep people hooked!
The other bit of advice I was going to ask for was for people fighting cancer and feeling like they are stuck in the ‘dark place’ you mentioned before… Is there anything you could say to them? Just because you were diagnosed almost two years ago and all this seems to have really helped you…
The thing with cancer is that people deal with it in their own way… Some people sort of retreat into themselves and find it difficult to talk about and others have to share it. And I have to admit that when I was first diagnosed I didn’t tell anybody except my very close family. For a while I didn’t tell any of my friends because it took me so long to come to terms with the diagnosis. And when I did I couldn’t actually call them… I had to email them and say ‘forgive me this is the only way I can tell you’ because I knew that if I’d called them I’d start crying. But once I’d done that I got really mad and thought ‘I’m not going to put up with this, I’m not going to retreat into myself, I’m going to get out there and do something about it!’ Because I’ve lost both of my parents to cancer… My brother had cancer (thankfully he’s a survivor)… So I’ve been on both sides of it and my family has been beaten up too much by this for me not to get out and do something about it. And that starts by talking about it but I’m also going to raise money for research because that’s my way of fighting back!
Since then I’ve of course thought a lot about my cancer and how I’ve coped with it, and the fundraiser has on many days been my whole reason to get up in the morning you know? That feeling of ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to raise this money, I’m going to make a difference!’ As I said, it’s a very personal thing and everybody is different but for me right now I just need to get out there and do something! Cancer’s a bully, it beats up your body and absolutely messes with your mind and I never liked or tolerated bullies. In the workplace or anywhere else. It’s just another fight I’ve got on my hands you know!

Shortly after we had this conversation, Elaine was hit with some devastating news: a recent PET scan showed that the chemotherapy she started in November hadn’t actually worked and that there was a recurrence of cancer in her lymph nodes even worse than before. She’s since started chemotherapy again and is due to begin radiotherapy soon. Now given the unfaltering courage and positivity she just displayed in this interview I think you can probably guess what happens next: less than 48 hours after finding this out she shared a video of herself pushing around the house with a massive grin on her face, promising in the caption that she wouldn’t let the news get her down. Elaine is by far the bravest skateboarder to have ever graced the pages of this magazine (and we’ve had a dude bloody front blunting Le Dôme), but I guess if you’ve made it this far you already know this. 

Interview conducted on the 3rd of March 2020 for issue 30.