Breathe in breathe out - Jeltje Danhof

I try to regulate my breath, concentrate on putting one foot in front on the other. It’s kilometre nine of the Tiree 10K. It is a sunny day in the beginning of May. The wind, still cold from the winter, sweeps in my face. Despite me being tired I can’t stop smiling. 

Jetlje 

Throwback to ten months earlier. After almost five months of intensive chemotherapy, I could not stand up long enough to brush my teeth. Every time I would stand upright, a dizziness would overtake me and I would have to sit down. My partner would have to support me when I would try to walk across the room. I would stare in the mirror and not recognise the person who stared back at me: the hair on my head, eyebrows and eyelashes long gone, my face all swollen from the steroids and skin a pasty off-white colour from anaemia. 

I have always loved running. I started during my student time in an attempt to become fitter and I have never looked back. Running has kept me sane during my student time, during my internships and after long shifts as a junior doctor. When I worked abroad for Doctors Without Borders, I would try to run in as many places as the local security rules allowed. It was during my runs that I felt the first symptoms of cancer: the strange chest pains, shortness of breath. I pushed through these symptoms and the evening before I found out that I had an 11 cm tumour growing next to my heart, I had completed a very slow 10k run. 

The diagnosis was non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the treatment was a harrowing course of intensive chemotherapy over the course of five months. I tried very hard not to think about the prognosis or the complications from treatment. 

My way of dealing with stress has always been the same: go out for a run. And now, during the most stressful time in my life, I had to change my coping mechanism. Chemotherapy literally swiped me off my feet. The dizziness was crippling and all I could do was lie down on the sofa, watching Netflix or trying to read a book. I had great difficulties transitioning from doctor into a patient, having to trust on the kindness of others instead of offering kindness myself. 

After a seemingly endless time of treatment I had another scan and was told that the cancer was gone. Gone! This news gave intense joy but also intense confusion. How could I pick up life where I left it, now I had the feeling that life itself had made a 180-degree turn on me? Friends, family and work were all the same where I had left them, but I had changed.

The day after my scan results I was outside, attempting a walk. I started slowly, but managed a 30-second jog very soon. Step by step, one foot in front of the other. My broken body recognised the rhythm of my footsteps and slowly I started my recovery.

Months and seasons came and went by and I kept on putting one step in front of another. I started a phased return at work and kept on running. Christmas came, family visits, old friends, new friends, and I kept on running. I signed up for some races: the 10K on the Isle of Tiree, the Isle of Mull and the Isle of Coll. 

And here we are, on the Isle of Tiree, during the last kilometre of my 10K run. My legs hurt, but they are working. I am out of breath, but my lungs are working. I am still here. I am alive. I enjoy my body, which has been through so much but is still functioning. And step by step, putting one foot in front of another, I am recovering from cancer.