Running is far more than just a way to stay fit, for many it’s a way of life. For Jenny Baker it helped her overcome one of life’s greatest challenges. Today she kindly shares her story and offers hope for many women who may find themselves in a similar position.
I’ve been running regularly for over 15 years and I’m a total fan. Running has 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 18 months ago I discovered a whole new dimension to running when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I had just had my best year ever of running – PBs at every distance and a Good for Age entry into the London Marathon. 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. I asked my oncologist whether I could run through chemotherapy which I was to have first. 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. 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.