‘Can I Keep Run­ning?’

When JENNY BAKER was told she had can­cer, run­ning be­came a source of con­trol and com­fort

Runner's World (UK) - - IN THS ISSUE -

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.

Jenny Baker’s

book, Run for Your Life: How One Woman Ran Cir­cles around Breast Can­cer (Pitch Pub­lish­ing) is out now.

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