‘Can I Keep Running?’
When JENNY BAKER was told she had cancer, running became a source of control and comfort
Cancer did not deter Jenny Baker
As 2014 drew to a close, Jenny Baker looked back on her best running year yet. She’d smashed PBS at every distance from the mile to the marathon, racked up her highest mileage ever and earned a Good for Age qualification for the 2015 London Marathon.
‘ With my 50th birthday approaching, I was feeling happier in my skin than at any other time in my life,’ says Jenny, who is chair of the Amos Trust, a human rights charity. ‘Running was a huge contributing factor, giving me a sense of physical, spiritual and mental wellbeing.’
Jenny decided to mark turning 50 by doing what she loved most, making ambitious running plans, in this case to run five marathons and an ultra that year. And then she found a lump in her breast.
‘I’d noticed the shape of my right breast had changed a little, but hadn’t done anything about it,’ says Jenny, now 52. ‘Then, in March 2015, I thought, “I must stop ignoring this” and had a feel around. I found an unmistakable lump and was referred by my GP to hospital.’ The consultant told Jenny she thought it was cancer just from the examination. ‘She sent me for a biopsy and while I sat waiting to be called in, I began writing a training plan for my next marathon, with the words “I think it’s cancer” all the time hanging in my head like a cartoon speech bubble.’
A week later, the results came back – it was breast cancer and it had spread to at least one of Jenny’s lymph nodes. ‘It was a huge shock. I thought of myself as fit and healthy, and I felt well. How could I have cancer when I could cycle 50 miles at the weekend and run to work during the week?’
Jenny had to undergo an 18-week course of chemotherapy to shrink the tumour, followed by surgery and radiotherapy. ‘At the first appointment with the oncologist, Dr Lewanksi, I asked, “Can I keep running?” He said no one had ever asked him that before but it turned out that he was a runner himself and we ended up comparing marathons.’
Running was a great comfort to Jenny during
the early weeks of her diagnosis. ‘Anxiety and fear would swirl around my mind for the first couple of miles but then settle into the background. I arrived home each time thinking, “Whatever happens, you can do this.”’
With Dr Lewanksi’s blessing, Jenny set herself the challenge of running to as many of her chemotherapy sessions as she could – seven miles from her home in Ealing, West London, to Charing Cross Hospital. ‘One of the worst things about a cancer diagnosis is the lack of control,’ she says. ‘Running to chemo was a way of holding on to some control and maintaining a sense of normality.’
Jenny wasn’t always a runner. In fact, her debut race – a local 5K – had left her feeling ‘like a bit of a fraud’, and she was greatly intimidated by runners in club T-shirts. But after getting into triathlon a couple of years later she found her way back to running and this time she was hooked. ‘Running has been so many things to me – a space to achieve new things, time to think, a way to keep fit and stay healthy, a source of friendship and community,’ she says. She ran her first marathon in 2009 and joined the Ealing Eagles, her local running club, in 2011.
Three friends from the club, along with her two sisters and two sons, made up Jenny’s pack of ‘chemo runners’, who ensured that she was always accompanied on her hospital runs. Her older sister, Liz, actually took up running purely so that she could be involved. ‘I don’t know if they realised at the time what a gift they were giving me by enabling me to run,’ says Jenny. ‘
When the chemotherapy was complete, Jenny underwent a full mastectomy and breast reconstruction using tissue from her abdomen. ‘I couldn’t even stand up straight at first because the skin across my tummy was so tight,’ she remembers. ‘ When I finally came home from the hospital, I wept for the strong body that I had lost.’
A few weeks into her recovery, she went for a two-lap jog around Ealing Common. ‘I was surprised how much it took out of me and I realised that making a comeback at the 2016 London Marathon wasn’t realistic,’ she says. ‘However, one of the other things I’d been thinking about doing to celebrate my 50th year was to reach the milestone of 50 Parkruns. With 38 completed, I realised that it was still possible and put my mind to it.’
The indefatigable Jenny achieved that goal, running her 50th Parkrun in Gunnersbury, West London, six weeks after completing radiotherapy and the month before her 51st birthday.
From the beginning, Jenny has been open about her cancer diagnosis, writing a blog about her experiences. ‘Many women got in touch to say they were told not to run during their treatment and while I understand that it’s a very individual thing, I think more could be done to promote the benefits of exercise and assure active women and men that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to stop them doing the sport they love. I found it such a life-giving thing.’
The disease and the treatment certainly haven’t stopped Jenny. Next month she will be running the London Marathon, taking up the Good for Age place she never got to use in 2015. Two more marathons are planned for later in the year, including one in Palestine, where the charity she chairs does peacekeeping work. ‘My aim for London is just to finish and enjoy the race,’ she says. ‘I suspect I’ll never beat the PBS I set in 2014, but speed seems less important now than the simple joy of running and seeing what my body can do. Who knew that putting on your trainers and getting out the door could be so significant?’
‘Running to chemo was a way of holding on to some control and maintaining a sense of normality’
THE SIMPLE THINGS Speed and PBS are now less important to Jenny than the sheer joy of running.
CLEAR HEAD Whenever Jenny ran, her fears and anxieties would fade into the background.
CANCER CARE Jenny (second from right) with her ‘chemo runners’
Jenny at the finish line of the 2013 Palestine Marathon. She’s planning to do it again this year.
Among the 2,100km Jenny ran in 2016 was the Osterley 10K. She also ran four half marathons.
book, Run for Your Life: How One Woman Ran Circles around Breast Cancer (Pitch Publishing) is out now.