When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, there were two things I was told would definitely happen to me. The first was that I would get constipation. The second was that my hair would never be the same again. Well, I never did get constipation and my hair - apart from the fact it is now in a style I would have the never had the confidence to pick - is still thick and straight. What no one told me as I was ferried between consultation rooms was that I would end up owning lycra; that I would turn to exercise and that exercise would change my life.
Having had to learn to walk again in my twenties when I had my hip sawn in three and pinned back together (yep, I always thought dodgy legs would be my ‘thing’), I went into active treatment knowing that it wasn’t the surgery, the hospitals or the pain I had to fear.
It was the times when I was alone, struggling with my mind, my rehab and my weight gain.
When I was diagnosed (just three weeks after getting engaged to my partner of 13 years), I knew I had to focus on my head and let the experts get on with treating the cancer.
So, I did something no one expected. I reached for a pair of trainers, signed up for my first-ever 10k on chemo and wore my first-ever running vest before my very last dose. I took my bald head, PICC line, metal-pinned hip, tummy-tucked stomach (used to reconstruct my right boob) and recovering new right breast out into the fresh air and I took a step forward.
And it is a step I will never forget. Following surgery, trapped in a body corset to keep my stomach together, reaching the lamp post opposite my house was a major achievement. Little did I think that that milestone would turn into a full mile and that that mile would mark the start of a life-changing journey with exercise. I started small with a path just 209 small steps long. And, when I walk that same path even now, I find it hard to imagine just how difficult it was all those years ago.
When I opted for a 10k to celebrate the end of treatment rather than a trip to the pub and rewarded myself with my first pair of proper running trainers, my commitment to exercise was clear. What wasn’t clear was just how far it would take me. Treatment year (2014) was about moving forward and proving to my body that I am stronger than the physical obstacles that keep trying hard to trip me up. 2015 was the year of the half marathon, a painful 13.2 miles with a muscle injury that made me question whether to continue. But in 2016, I went on to complete the London Marathon with a big smile on my face (if we ignore the fact I couldn’t feel my legs for the last 14 miles and the fact I crossed the line a minute and three seconds over my hoped-for 5 hour finish).
While I was pushing my body to cover increasingly-hard distances, I noticed something amazing. Other people were pushing themselves too. Whether taking the stairs, running for the bus, taking on their first ‘couch to 5k’ programme or signing up for a challenge, my exercise efforts were giving people a hope they couldn’t find for themselves. There is no better feeling than thinking you are helping others with every step (even if you are taped up to help control the pain). Exercise made me feel alive and, more than that, it encouraged others to live.
Trainers made an appearance in every good day, so I decided, in 2017, that they should probably play a role in our ‘big’ day. That’s why on 23 April 2017, my partner and I got married on the Cutty Sark at 7.20am before running the London Marathon (and the trekking the Great Wall of China for honeymoon). We gifted our wedding to charity to offer hope to those facing serious illness. And it meant the world to us.
When I look back on that whole bizarre fundraising, wedding planning, volunteering, training period, I don’t think about the fact I was hobbling to the start line after months of injury worried I would never make the finish. I think about the woman who heard our story and decided to get out of her wheelchair for the first time in a year. Her daughter wrote to me and said that I had made her feel that anything is possible and that inspired her to take a step. I will never forget her words. That, for me, is success, and exercise made it possible.
You’d think, after dedicating your wedding to exercise and grappling with multiple injuries that 2017 would have given me closure. But, having just clocked up 2,449 miles as part of my #milebetters2018 challenge (2018 exercise-related miles in 2018) and picking up my Classics medal (for completing the marathon, Swim Serpentine and Ride London), I know I am not ready to pack away those trainers just yet.
In fact, with 2019 comes a major health milestone – I will be five years clear of cancer. To celebrate, I will be throwing myself an exercise-related party with the Big Five, five big challenges that take me further than ever before. With a walk round the Isle of Wight (106km), half ironman and an ultra already planned in, 2019 is shaping up to be pretty energetic*.
Signing up for the half ironman, I caught myself hovering over the registration page and laughing to myself. Five years ago, I would have no more thought about setting such a tough challenge. Five years ago, I was the woman with the metal-pinned pelvis who was lucky she could walk. Five years ago, I didn’t believe that my body would have what it takes to move forward.
All I hope is that my efforts help others feel that they, too, can go further than they think possible. We don’t all have to run marathons to change our lives. But, by getting out into the fresh air, we can carve out time and space for ourselves and our bodies so that we are ready for all life has to throw at us.
Whatever your goal this year, I wish you comfy blister-resist socks, good weather and lots of luck. The hardest part is taking that first step.
*For all of you reading this thinking maybe I should have taken up knitting, my hip surgeon has confirmed that my hips are in great shape and I genuinely feel healthier and happier than ever.