I’m a total fan of running. I’ve been running for the last fifteen years or so, and running has made such a difference to my life. It’s made me physically fit, it gives me much needed headspace and mental health, it’s been a space where I can achieve new things and stretch myself and, through my running club, it’s given me a community to belong to and many new friendships. But just over two years ago I discovered a whole new dimension to running when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I had a year of running planned to celebrate my 50th birthday when I found the lump in my breast that would change everything. I knew that one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer, but it was a huge shock to discover that I was the one.
A cancer diagnosis is scary, sending you into a parallel world of hospital appointments, scans and treatment that disrupts your life and the plans you had made. My instinct was to keep running as much as I could because I knew how important that was to my mental health. Gradually a treatment plan emerged and I needed to have chemotherapy first to try and shrink the tumour. I went to see my oncologist with lots of questions, but the main one was whether I could keep running through chemotherapy. He said no one had ever asked him that before, but he didn’t see why not. It turned out that he was a marathon runner, and in between telling me all about the side-effects of chemo, he sang the praises of German marathons and told me I should do Berlin next.
I ran to my first chemotherapy appointment, seven miles along the river from Kew Bridge to Hammersmith feeling fit, healthy and very anxious. Three weeks later, I set off to run to the second, slower this time and weighed down with sadness at what was happening to me. I met my friend Lucy and we ran along the river in the sunshine, talking all the way. I arrived at the hospital feeling light-hearted and energised, and ready for what was ahead; the sorrow I’d felt at the start had been left behind as we ran. That was when I decided to run to all my chemo appointments, even if I had to do a shorter route or get the tube most of the way there and just run the last few hundred yards. I wanted to arrive at the hospital in my trainers and on my terms.
It would take around ten days after each treatment for me to start running again. I’d try a slow two laps of the common to see what my body was capable of, and then gradually build up the distance again until I knew I’d be able to run the seven miles to my next appointment. It gave me something to aim for, and a sense of agency in a time when it was really easy to be passive. My friends, sisters and sons joined me on the runs which gave them a way to get involved in my treatment. Running to chemo enabled me to rewrite the story of what was happening to me, to include laughter, friendship and achievement alongside the grief and sickness brought by the treatment. I then went on to have a mastectomy, reconstruction, radiotherapy and hormone therapy but running was my secret weapon to cope with it all and to find my way back to myself afterwards.
This photo is of me outside Charing Cross hospital. This was my run to my final chemo appointment with my friends, my sister and my two sons.
Cancer treatment affects people in very different ways and not everyone will want to run or be able to run, but getting some gentle exercise if you can – whether it’s walking, swimming, cycling or dancing – will help you cope with fatigue and with everything that’s happening to you.
I’ve written a book about my experience, Run for Your Life, which is published by Pitch Publishing. I blog about running and you can follow me on Twitter.
Link for blog: www.jennybaker.org.uk
Link for Twitter: @runningjenbaker