Cancer is a subject close to our hearts here at Run Mummy Run. As you would imagine in such a large community of women runners, a great many of us have sadly been touched by this cruel disease – either personally or through our family members or friends.
This blog post is part of our series about running and cancer. Caroline Frith tells us her very personal story of how cancer affected her running and how it helped her through her recovery….
On being diagnosed with cancer I imagine most people ask their doctors questions like, “Has it spread?” or “Will I die?” – not “How soon after surgery will I be able to run again?” Only 2 weeks before finding what turned out to be a malignant tumour in my breast, I had run a new half marathon PB of 1.34 and physically felt in the best shape of my life.
I have been a runner since my early twenties, and continued to run through both my pregnancies. Once I had children, running provided some much needed ‘me’ time. It provided the solitude I craved after a day of changing nappies, wiping noses and cleaning food missiles off the kitchen walls.
Running is my stress relief. I was about to embark on one of the most stressful periods of my life, not knowing how I would cope if I couldn’t run.
Keeping life normal
I was determined to keep my life as normal as possible throughout my treatment. Exercise is such an important part of my life. I didn’t want to stop. Between the diagnosis being confirmed and my first surgery I ran almost every day. As I ran sometimes the tears fell, but mostly my mind just tried to make sense of the seemingly impossible.
People like me are not supposed to get cancer
I was 36 and as far as I was concerned the epitome of good health. I ate well, wasn’t overweight, did far more than the minimum suggested amount of exercise, didn’t drink excessively and had never smoked. People like me are not supposed to get cancer.
I ended up having 2 operations – the first one was uncomplicated and I healed well. My running shoes were back on my feet after 2 weeks, despite being told by my surgeon not to run for 3 months. I decided my mental health was more important than doing what I was told.
Unfortunately, the pathology results showed that the cancer had spread beyond the breast and the tumour hadn’t been completely removed. This meant I now needed further surgery followed by chemotherapy.
After my second operation I recovered more slowly, and developed a post operative infection. I still managed to get back on my bike a month later, but it was two months before I embarked on the ‘Couch to 5k’ programme very gently.
Once I started chemo I was determined to keep running, despite being poisoned every 3 weeks. For the first few days after each cycle I could barely walk up the road and all I wanted to do was sleep. Sleep provided the only relief from the awful side effects. However, these effects are cumulative so I knew unless I was back to normal before each cycle, I would rapidly go downhill.
Back to running
Mentally I was receiving great support from cancer psychological services, but I missed the natural endorphins my body was so used to. I gave myself 5 days after each cycle to rest, sleep and build up my strength and then on day 6 I was back pounding the pavements of North East London.
The first post-chemo run was a battle of wills. My mind against my body. I knew I could do it and would feel better for it, so I dragged my drugged and battered body out the door. As the days went by it got progressively easier. I even did a 10k race in between my third and fourth chemo cycles.
The icing on the cake came in the form of a couple of race wins shortly after finishing treatment – a 5k five weeks after my last chemo and a 10k a month later.
In the year after, I broke my half marathon PB twice more to achieve 1.31. I also competed in my first triathlon and earned my 50 parkrun t-shirt.
As I line up at the start of a race now I barely give the numbers on my Garmin a thought; I just run how I feel. My body has been through so much and yet it continues to amaze me by doing what I ask of it.
I am definitely a stronger runner post cancer, but I also enjoy it more. I am so grateful that I am still able to put on my running shoes and head out the door in search of that elusive runner’s high.