On a cold February morning, John Keogh breaks through the icy surface of a loch not far outside Edinburgh wearing nothing but a blue and green hat, matching trunks, gloves and socks. He submerges himself in the water until it hits his chest as he has done every day since the first of February and will do until the end of the month.
Keogh spoke to Keep Edinburgh Thriving to tell us why he decided to swim in the sea, reservoirs, lagoons and rivers every day in the coldest month of the year.
After retiring from his role as an engineering manager in September last year, Keogh was looking for a new challenge and was inspired by some local wild swimmers.
“I was out with a friend in Portobello and there were people swimming in the sea and I thought, I’m going to do that. So I set myself a target to be in the sea by the end of November.”
Acclimatising to Scottish water is no easy feat. Keogh built up his tolerance through cold showers until he felt comfortable enough to take a dip in the sea. He hit his November target and by December he was swimming in cold water at least three times a week.
Flash forward to February 2021 and Keogh is wild swimming every day come rain or shine and even snow, but no longer just for fun. He is raising money for the charity, Sarcoma UK, in memory of his son-in-law Shaun, who passed away from sarcoma cancer four years ago.
“I was actually enjoying the cold swimming and then I thought, do you know something? I’m going to go in every day. What's the shortest month? February. I thought, I’m gonna call it a ‘Dip a day in FebHooray’ because I wanted to put a wee bit of fun in it as well. Little did I know February is the coldest month of the year for water.”
Keogh had been wanting to find his own way to honour Shaun's memory and raise money for Sarcoma UK research. Once he discovered wild swimming it became clear to him this was how he wanted to do that. He then got in touch with Sarcoma UK and they helped him set up a ‘Just Giving’ page.
“It took me four years to essentially buck up the courage to actually do something. A lot of other folks were doing some things and I was part of that but I wanted to do something.”
Shaun was 34 when he was unexpectedly diagnosed with sarcoma cancer, changing his and his family's lives.
“He had been complaining of a sore back so he went to the doctor’s a couple of times and eventually got the blood tests done.”
Shaun got his blood tested on a Thursday. On Friday he was admitted to hospital due to abnormalities in his blood and by the Sunday he was told he had stage four cancer.
“You know how you talk about somebody's life changing overnight? That was kind of it. I’m sure they call it silent cancer. Shaun had a lump the size of a tennis ball in his thigh and he never even felt it.”
After being diagnosed with terminal cancer in April 2016, Shaun passed away on December 31 that year.
Sarcoma is a cancer that affects the bones or soft tissue and is one of the lesser-known cancers. The key symptoms to look out for are bone pain or a lump developing anywhere in the body. It is often only identified at later stages, like in Shaun's case.
Sarcoma UK is a national charity that funds vital research, offers support for anyone affected by sarcoma cancer and campaigns for better treatments.
Dr Sorrel Bickley, director of research, policy and support at Sarcoma UK, spoke with Keep Edinburgh Thriving to explain the main issues facing those with Sarcoma and why Keogh’s actions are so important.
“Not enough people know about sarcoma, but poor awareness isn't the only hurdle patients face. Delays to diagnosis mean that often people have an agonising wait and have to go back to see a healthcare professional multiple times before they are told that they have sarcoma.
“Shockingly, more than a third of people in Scotland were told at their first appointment with a healthcare professional that their symptoms were not serious or were started on a treatment for another condition.
“Treatments also lag far behind those available for other more common types of cancer. Sarcoma UK is working hard to invest in the research needed to develop better and kinder treatments,” Dr Bickley explains.
“We are in awe of John’s cold water challenge and we’d like to thank him and everyone who has supported him for their fantastic support of the charity. The funds raised will help us to get closer to the day that everyone affected by sarcoma cancer has the treatment, care and support they need.”
In the first two weeks of February, Keogh had already hit his target of raising £5,000. Despite plummeting temperatures and icy water, he still kept going to raise as much money and awareness as possible.
“You know when you just do something and you think this feels right?. I feel this is the right thing to be doing. I feel this is hopefully the start of something that I can do where I can give something back.”
Next year John Keogh aims to raise £20,000 and bring more wild swimmers on board to take part in a ‘Dip a Day for FebHooray’.
“If I can get 40 people that can make £500, it could raise my £20,000. That would be something.”
Keep updated with John’s progress and read more about his story through his Just Giving page.
For advice and support give Sarcoma UK’s support line a call on 0808 801 0401 or visit their website for more information.