I am running the final 200 metres of a 10k race.
My heart is pounding, and my legs are going to jelly as I puff hard, trying to catch my breath.
My husband shouts next to me, “Go Lou, go!” and I put on a sprint, surging past a couple of other runners to cross the line.
And as I finish and finally stop running, I suddenly burst into tears. Proper, big, snotty sobs on my husband’s shoulder, inconsolable and happy all at once.
Now, normally a 10k running event would not make me quite so emotional. And certainly not a local race that I run every year in my hometown of Brighton.
But this day in mid-November 2019 feels so very different. Because just six months previously, I was facing a possible incurable cancer diagnosis.
As it is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, I want to share it with you my rollercoaster running journey. I hope to not only raise awareness of this dreadful disease, but also the highs and lows of running and just how much it means to me. It is my go-to friend when I am anxious and stressed, my mental health booster when life just gets too much.
In 2015, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 melanoma - a very serious form of skin cancer – on my left hand. Following surgery and a skin graft, I considered myself incredibly lucky to be cancer free. It was a frightening experience and a wake-up call. I was 42, unfit and overweight, and I needed to take better care of myself. I wanted to get stronger in case the cancer returned.
So, I started running. A keen sprinter and netball player at school, my sporting prowess had completely deserted me as I shuffled my beetroot face and podgy, Lycra-clad body around my local park. But, despite feeling embarrassed, I fell in love with the endorphins and I stuck with it.
I was never going to be fast, but I thrived on the physical and mental health benefits that came with every workout. Anxiety from scans results and appointments... fears about cancer recurrence... niggles with work... all my worries were processed while clocking the miles. I lost three stone over several months and soon enough, parkruns became 10ks, then 10-mile events became half marathons.
In April 2017, I ran my first marathon. I chose Brighton as I live in Hove and the route goes right past my home. As my running buddy Clara and I turned into my street at Mile 17, the noise from family, friends and neighbours was overwhelming. It’s a wonderful memory of an extraordinary day.
Clara and I crossed the line hand in hand at just over 5 hours! The next day I hobbled up and down the stairs, but I could not stop grinning. I felt so epic and I was already thinking about my next marathon. It had to be London. Growing up, my dad and I made a ritual of hogging the TV on marathon day. ‘The Greatest Race on Earth’; the theme music still gives me goose bumps.
The following year, I won the runner’s lottery - a ballot place for London Marathon 2019! I was so excited. I thrived on the training, reaping the rewards of regular runs and strength sessions. I felt fitter and healthier than ever, so when I mentioned a lump in my neck to my Macmillan nurse, I wasn’t too worried.
But what happened next was a blur of ultrasounds, CT, MRI and PET scans, and ironically, the lump was just a cyst. But the scans had discovered an incidental tumour on my left lung.
The concern was that my melanoma had returned and spread, and the consultant prepared my husband and I for the possibility that it may be incurable. We discussed treatment options, and plans were made for me to begin immunotherapy after surgery. We were devastated and so worried.
I was booked in for an operation at Guy’s in London to remove the tumour. The day before, I remember going for a run with Clara. As we stopped to take a selfie on a lung-busting hill we call ‘The Beast’, I felt so scared.
The surgery went well, and afterwards, the surgeon joked as she ‘advised’ me not to run London Marathon in two weeks’ time. Hooked up to a morphine drip and a chest drain, unable to walk, I didn’t argue! Instead, I watched Kipchoge race to victory from my sofa, feeling tearful and terrified for my future.
My results appointment proved to be quite a curve ball. The tumour was not melanoma, it was primary lung cancer!! I was in shock as the oncologist explained my new cancer was early stage and curable. I was relieved and devastated in equal measure. I would need another operation at Guy’s hospital to remove half my left lung and surrounding lymph nodes, and the thought of revisiting invasive surgery all over again, whilst still in recovery, made me feel physically sick.
It was difficult for my family and I to process how I had developed two separate kinds of cancer by the age of 45. There is bad luck, but this felt unfair. I have never smoked; I eat healthily, and exercise is a huge part of my life. I was so far removed from a ‘typical’ case, that it was even a surprise to the oncology team.
But cases of lung cancer in younger people on the rise. No longer the disease of older men who are life-long smokers, statistics have changed, and lung cancer is now the UK’s biggest cancer killer and the second biggest killer of women aged 25-49. Plus, 28% of all lung cancer diagnoses are not smoking related and over 46,000 people are diagnosed in the UK each year.
If recovering from the first surgery was like being hit by a motorbike, the second was by a 20-tonne truck. It was much more painful, and the shortness of breath was horrible. But my body bounced back well and as soon as I felt better, I began taking short walks with my family.
Every day, a little more optimism grew and returning to running seemed like a possibility. I got excited about future goals when I really needed a positive outlook - I was even booking in races while sat in bed in bandages!
A few weeks later, I received the news I was all-clear, and I had my consultant’s blessing to get back to running – it meant the world and I was so happy.
There is no information online about how to return to running after such extensive operations, so my husband and I tentatively tried short sessions. Every run-walk was a struggle. I now had a vastly reduced lung function, and my breathing was full-on Darth Vader - I was so wheezy, people would turn to stare at who was making so much noise!
I had lost my ‘deep breath’, the extra we draw on when tackling cardio activity, and to begin with, I could only manage 30 seconds of running before I had to stop. I felt like giving up many times.
But I had deferred my London Marathon place, and the thought of taking part in 2020 kept me going – that, and the love and support of my family and friends. As part of my post-cancer journey, I also decided to fundraise for Macmillan Cancer Support, pledging to run 100 miles of races before the end of December this year (see below).
Macmillan provides vital support to so many cancer patients, and their families, every day. Once my scars had healed, they helped my husband and I pick up the psychological pieces and discuss our fears about either of the cancers coming back. A Macmillan counsellor also advised us how to speak with our two sons, aged 11 and 14, about my latest diagnosis. Telling older children is a big one, as they understand the true nature of cancer, so honesty was our best policy.
And my boys, my inspiration, and the best support team in the business, were there to cheer me over the finish line as I completed the Brighton 10k just six months after my second surgery.
It felt like the biggest achievement and the positive motivation I needed to keep going with my running. My family were there again when I completed the Brighton Half Marathon in February this year – clocking in just 14 minutes slower than my PB. Then Covid-19 happened, and the world suddenly stopped. Events were cancelled left, right and centre, and once again my marathon dream turned to dust.
As I sat at home, glued to the Government press conferences and watching the scary statistics, I realised I had a choice to make. I could stay at home all day, worrying and stressing about the pandemic. Or I could lace up my trainers and get out there.
Despite being classed as a ‘vulnerable’ person, running made me feel less anxious about my situation and I decided to train throughout lockdown. I am lucky to be only minutes from the open trails of the South Downs National Park, and I ran with my husband early in the morning to minimise risk.
I had a CT scan in the middle of lockdown (lung cancer has a high recurrence rate), and to deal with my ‘scaniexty’ about the results, I signed up to run a virtual 10k in the same week. We also signed up to other virtual 5ks, 10ks and a half marathon challenge to stay positive and keep morale going during a pretty bleak time.
I loved earning my ‘bling’ in lockdown, and virtual races included The Vitality 10k and the Rise 8k, a charity run for a Brighton domestic abuse charity.
I have also had my place for London Marathon 2021 confirmed, and I have signed up to The Vitality Big Half Marathon in April next year – a huge leap of faith that the world may be getting back to ‘normal’.
And guess what? I have run up ‘The Beast’ hill repeatedly these last few months, getting stronger with every rep. Hills will never, ever be my friend, yet I appreciate what I can achieve with my amazing one and a half lungs. I am even aiming for a marathon PB in October next year. And why not? You don’t know what you are capable of unless you try!
Instagram: For updates on my journey to London Marathon 2021, check out @Louslungandahalf
Fundraising page: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/louisebarthas100milechallenge
Lung Cancer Info: Know your body, know of any changes and if you are worried, then please go and see your GP. Visit www.roycastle.org to find out more and to check out a free symptom tracker.