Life, but not as you knew it: How running has helped me cope with throat cancer

Here at Shine HQ, we’ve just launched our new campaign Smash it for Shine.  What’s it about? Getting out of your comfort zone and making 2017 your year – whether you want to learn something new, try something different, or just challenge yourself to make a change (no matter how big or small).  In our latest blog, our guest writer Vicky shares with us how running has helped her cope both mentally and physically with the shock of a throat cancer diagnosis – and how she plans to keep going until she rocks the Great North Run in September.  Have a read, get inspired and let us know how you’ll smash it this year. There are loads of ways to get involved (and we promise that most of them don’t involve running a half marathon!).


One day last September, I was diagnosed with throat cancer. What a shock – both for me and the medical team. I’m a fit and healthy married mother of two – I have never smoked and don’t drink (excessively!). Why, how, what if…all these questions flew through my mind for weeks…it’s not fair, what did I do to deserve this…blah blah blah. But there are plenty of blogs on all of that, so I wanted to chat about how my hobby, running, got me through it all.

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Vicky and running buddy, Millie

I took up running about three years ago, going from being a complete non-runner (forged sick notes for my PE teacher, avoiding running for a bus etc.), to thinking that I needed a flexible form of exercise that fit in around my life. With childcare, being a committee member of the school PTA, and very busy career, I hardly had time to fit in exercise.

So I took up running using the “Couch to 5k” app. It wasn’t easy, I hated it and was often found having a quiet sob behind my sunglasses for the first mile or so. But eventually it got easier and as each month passed I could run further and a tiny bit faster. I looked forward to getting out in the fresh air and having 30-40 minutes to myself.

Three years later, I have run 2 half marathons (the Great North Run – GNR), countless Park Run mornings, and many, many 10km races. I joined a local running club and found the fun in running with a variety of people, all ages and abilities. I also told two of the running club leaders what I was going through, and received so much love and support from them – training and rest advice which really helped.

At the end of last year (2016) I managed to complete a virtual challenge – which was to run 1000km (621.4 miles), and my final race of the year was one week after my treatment. I ran a 5km seasonally named “Reindeer Run” on Christmas Eve.

During my initial tests, back in August 2016, I had my training plan for the Great North Run to keep me going, and it kept me focused. I knew I had to eat, get some rest and follow my training plan…despite being worried sick about what my diagnosis might be. I had two endoscopy procedures within four weeks of each other, and the first question I asked the consultant was “when can I go for a run?”

The big day arrived last year and I ran the GNR 10 days after my first endoscopy operation. My consultant thought that I was bonkers but agreed that I could do it. He told me that as my body was fit and active, it was okay to run as it wouldn’t be a shock to my system, and it might actually be good for me. That feeling after 13.1 miles was amazing. I ran a little slower than the previous year but that medal means more to me than any of others where I have achieved faster times.

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Vicky and her 2016 Great North Run medal

I attended my follow up appointment (where I received my diagnosis) after I had run 5 miles earlier that morning, and it took my mind off the meeting with the oncologist. Running frees the mind, allows you to think about your breathing, and most importantly, if you find yourself a good running buddy, you can chat about random rubbish. The steps of running keeps you going. You can’t stop and cry mid-run, but I did have days when I felt I was running…. running fast… and angrily away from cancer.

I started radiotherapy at the wonderful Clatterbridge Centre, Wirral, in November…. six weeks of daily trips and treatment, with the target in my mind of continuing my running. I proudly told the nurse and radiology staff of my intentions, and they told me to listen to my body and take it easy. My oncologist and consultant have both commented on how being fit and focused has helped me tackle side effects and the treatment, and I do wonder if I might have suffered more if I wasn’t so fit?

My running slowed down during radiotherapy but I was out, in the fresh air, alive. Who cares how fast or how far you go, its getting out there that counts! Because of my treatment, I still have a sore throat and dry mouth, so my trusty water bottle comes with me, and I don’t beat myself up if I need to rest a little or walk a few steps. It’s still early days in terms of recovery and I’m happy to slowly build my fitness back up again.

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Vicky with her running crew

My message to anyone going through cancer is to consider keeping active and doing something you enjoy…that may be yoga, cycling or swimming, but during the days when you are waiting for appointments or for treatment to start, it’s a wonderful tonic to have a daily focus. Be prepared to slow down a little if you are going through treatment – even the super fit get their energy levels zapped with radiotherapy or chemo – but just enjoy the focus on your activity and put cancer out of your mind for an hour. Put on your trainers and get out there. Don’t let cancer beat you.

The running bug is still with me and I have booked races to run this year including three different 10km races and two more half marathons…..And I have been offered a charity place at this year’s Great North Run for Shine – how lovely is that? I will do my best to raise money and raise awareness of this wonderful charity.

So what are you waiting for? Get your trainers on!

If you’d like more information about how you can Smash it for Shine, take a look here.

Shine is the official charity partner of Virtually Geared, a virtual running company that will support you to reach your running goals – and send you a fancy medal once you’ve finished your challenge!

We currently have two places left to run for Shine in the 10 mile Great South Run in October 2017. If you’re interested in one of these places, drop us a line at fundraising@shinecancersupport.org.

 

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Meet Jonathan!

There aren’t many jobs where having had cancer works in your favour, but here at Shine it strangely does. Today, our first ever Programme & Administrative Assistant, Jonathan, starts working with us and we couldn’t be more excited! We were delighted when we met Jon and found that he had both the skills and enthusiasm we wanted – and also that his own experience of cancer meant that he totally gets what our work means.

Jonathan grew up in Bournville, Birmingham (with the scent of Cadbury chocolate in the air!) going to drama classes, singing, playing the piano and building a huge Lego collection. He studied acting at university and is now based in Poole. Jonathan will be helping to ensure that everyone has a great time at Shine’s national events and that as many people as possible know about Shine’s work via social media. We asked Jon to write his personal experience of cancer so that we could all get to know him.  Read on to learn more!


What were you diagnosed with, and when?

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Shine’s new Programme & Administrative Assistant, Jonathan

I was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour (pineal germinoma) in 2007 which had spread to my spine.

How did you find out that you had cancer?

Unquenchable thirst and un-ending trips to the ”porcelain throne” were my first strange symptoms in 2004. I was told constantly by my GP that I was a “healthy young man”. It was 2006, when my weight had dropped to below 7 stone and I’d begun to see double, that my GP finally referred me to eye hospital.

After identifying (and filming) a rare eye condition, the eye department sent me for a MRI scan which revealed a ”small benign lesion” pressing on my pituitary gland and optic nerve. A pituitary condition (diabetes insipidus) which was causing my water problems was also belatedly diagnosed.

On 27th March 2007, I woke up barely able to walk or speak, and emergency brain surgery finally revealed I had a malignant tumour.

What did you think and feel when you were diagnosed?

I had no idea what a “lesion” was or that it could mean “tumour” or “cancer”. I continued working for a year not thinking anything of it and just coping with the daily symptoms.

Everything changed following surgery as I understood that the tumour was life-threatening and what the treatment entailed. I always felt fortunate knowing that it was likely to be curable and I didn’t feel scared as I was determined to do everything to get through. But I was naive about what that would involve.

How did the people around you react?

People at work really supported me throughout the strange symptoms while I continued to work and once I began treatment. They took me out and visited when I was able and kept me sane.

My parents and family were there for me 100%. I moved in with my folks and there were times when they had to do everything for me. I reacted badly to medication and radiotherapy and changed so much with the hormonal effects and tiredness, but they were always positive that I’d return to my old self.  I know it was really difficult for them and my sister to see my anxiety and panic attacks but not once did I see them get upset or short-tempered with me. Legends!

What treatment did you have?

The brain surgery (an endoscopic third ventriculostomy) relieved the pressure on my brain. I was then put on high calorie drinks to increase my weight and strength in prep for six weeks of radiotherapy.  I was also on dexamethasone which caused my longest stay in hospital as I reacted badly to being weaned off the drug following treatment.

For a couple of years afterwards I still had regular tests to determine what hormones had been affected and I had six monthly MRI scans until 2012 to ensure the tumour was completely gone. Physiotherapy helped my walking and counselling helped me cope with the hormonal and emotional impacts of the illness.

How did you feel through treatment?

I felt in limbo after the surgery in March 2007 as I waited for radiotherapy to begin in July. I was determined to increase my weight but felt very apprehensive about the effects of the rays. Unexpectedly those three months also gave me time to sit back, to think, to appreciate the everyday things in life that you don’t notice when rushing about in work (I enjoyed the changing seasons). I felt really close to my parents as they cared for me day to day and I found comfort in creativity, drawing, writing and art.

Anxiety, tiredness, restless legs and other nervous system effects of medication and hormone deficiencies had the biggest impact. I became withdrawn, found talking very difficult, couldn’t tolerate loud noises, music, follow conversations or cope with any confrontations. During the withdrawal of dexamethasone I began to think my brain had gone AWOL as I had panic attacks and couldn’t cope with stimulus at all.

What happened after treatment finished?

It was tough getting my life back on track and returning to work, handling my new anxiety, energy and physical conditions and getting accustomed to being partially sighted. I developed techniques to manage the effects and to help me get used to my new day-to-day reality.

The support of friends and family was uplifting but my condition made it very difficult for me to socialise, and I felt pressure to return to “normal”. I felt a need to push myself, taking a new promotion within weeks of returning to work, which I wasn’t ready to cope with.

Starting a part-time Masters degree gave me something else to focus on and work towards other than just getting better. I was incredibly thankful that the medical profession were able to cure my tumour but also became very aware of my own mortality and that of people around me. I felt a responsibility to make the most of every second which also brings pressure.

If you could give one piece of advice to yourself before your treatment what would it be?

My advice to my pre-treatment self would be to value more the support of friends and family and to accept that you’re not going to be on top form when they see you; it won’t matter to them anyway. Oh, and to ditch the red paisley head scarf!

What excites you about working for Shine?

I’m really excited about joining with Shine to be able to contribute to others’ awareness of the help available through treatment, while recovering, and adjusting to the aftermath of cancer and also how it changes you. I appreciate how having cancer early in life interrupts everything, alters your outlook and future, and I also feel the unfairness of incurable diseases limiting lives that are just beginning. I’m motivated to make sure that others going through this are aware of all the great events and support Shine provides. I’m really looking forward to helping young people feel they’re not alone, that they can face this together, and to help them forget for a while the battles they’re having.

Any big plans for 2017?

2017 marks 10 years since my diagnosis. Although the tumour has left me partially sighted I’m enjoying better eyesight following a recent operation. I’ll also be testing a new drug to improve my hormonal jiggery-pokery. I’m making the most of moving from London to Dorset, where my parents and sister (and new nephew) live, and can’t wait for summer by the sea!