“My body betrayed me in a way I never could have imagined” - Women's Running UK

“My body betrayed me in a way I never could have imagined”

Author: Women's Running Magazine

Read Time:   |  August 17, 2016

Alice-May Purkiss Race for Life

I never used to be much of a runner. When I was a kid, I avoided the PE lessons where we were forced to do cross-country like the plague. My equally running-averse father would write me notes to excuse me from taking part in the long-distance running programme of my secondary school’s winter PE schedules. Even as an adult, inspired by my boyfriend who finds running as easy as walking (he used to do fell running for fun; sometimes I wonder how we’re a couple), I laced up my trainers and headed out with very minimal success. I ran with no programme or agenda, I just ran because I thought it was the right thing to do. Pretty soon, I decided it was not the right thing for me to do and I retired my running shoes in favour of donning a swimming costume, a pair of goggles and got back to hitting the pool instead of the pavement.

But the year I turned 25, in some sort of quarter-life crisis, I decided to undertake 25 challenges before I turned 26. Several of these were set for me by my close friends and loved ones. Despite being well aware of my feelings about running, some wiseguy, who shall remain nameless, set me the challenge to take on 5K. A small introduction to a world I never thought I’d be part of.

So I downloaded the Couch to 5K app and I began running. I hated it. I hated the space it allowed me, the time it afforded me with my own thoughts. I hated that my body jiggled in places that I didn’t want to be reminded that it jiggled. I was embarrassed by the violent shade of red my skin turned every time I worked up a bit of a sweat. I would run through the wind and through the rain and in the sun and through miserable cold sleet sometimes, but being a person who doesn’t like to give up on a challenge, I did it. I ran my first 5K on 2 June, 2014, and as much as it pained me to say it at the time, I enjoyed it. I had inadvertently, entirely against my will, become one of those people who enjoyed running. I began to relish the time alone and I began to really appreciate what my body could do for me, getting me up some of the steepest hills in south-east London and powering on when my brain was telling me to quit. I entered a 10K. In the middle of WINTER. I trained through some hideous weather, temperatures close to freezing and in the darkest depths of the coldest months of the year. And I loved it. I loved it when I ran that first 10K. It was hard and it hurt like hell – but I loved it.

Alice-May Purkiss first 10K

Then, 10 months after my 26th birthday, I was served up another challenge. This one wasn’t to raise £1,000 for charity, or to try ballroom dancing, or to swim in 10 of London’s lidos, like during my 25at25 challenge. At the age of 26, when I was healthier than I had ever been before and right in the midst of living a busy life in London, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That was a bit of a blindsider, I can tell you.

My life went from that of a regular 26-yearold going to work and eating out with my friends and exercising regularly, to one dominated by health appointments. Trips to the hospital, scans, blood tests, injections, tablets, surgeries, A&E trips, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy began to take over my life.

Less than one month after my diagnosis, I was in for surgery (god love the NHS). I had a single mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, spent two nights in hospital and began a six-week recovery period. I was still reeling from the diagnosis. I’d had no time to process everything that was happening and before I knew where I was, I began to miss running and that brain space I had hated so much initially.

Unfortunately, my recovery period from surgery ended up being a lot longer than six weeks. I had a range of complications with my surgery, which meant more operations. Every time they cut me open again, my hopes of getting my running shoes on were pulled further and further away from me.

After five surgeries, and down to only one boob after having the implant removed, my surgeon (who is a rockstar FYI) gave me the go-ahead to run with a nod of the head. He was so underwhelmed by what he was telling me but I was simply delighted. I surprised myself how delighted I was, actually.

My first run after surgery was weird. Unsurprisingly, it was one of the hardest I had ever done. But I was overwhelmed by how glad I was to finally have my trainers back on my feet. I knew the ability to run was likely to be short lived as the start of my chemotherapy approached, and as I shuffledslowly around the park, I had a good old cry. I got some weird looks from passers by and onlookers, but I didn’t care. When I was going through surgery, I could manage all of my emotions but when I was trotting through the green spaces of London, feeling more free than I had for months, I couldn’t keep those emotions in check. Running gave me the freedom to feel everything I needed to feel, in a place that was just mine. Running had become my safe place.

Chemotherapy began and my opportunities to hit the road grew fewer and further between. I tried to exercise as much as possible, but dragging myself out of bed to run when I was crippled with nausea and flattened out with fatigue was almost impossible. In the third week of my threeweek cycles, I sometimes managed a short run, but I was often left angry at my body for not being able to do what I asked of it.

Eventually, I learned to leave my expectations at home. I turned off the setting on the tracker I used that muttered the time of each painfully slow mile to me and just concentrated on the fact that I was out of the house, defying the cancer and the brutal treatment I was going through. I began to forgive myself for walking and celebrate when I ran a whole mile, even if it was all downhill. Much like most things when you’re going through cancer treatment, my parameters changed. Running was no longer something I was failing to do well; it had become something I was doing against the odds.

Before cancer, my body and I had come such a long way from those days at school when I felt like running was some kind of punishment. I’d reached a point where we were on the same page and I was really pleased with my thighs when they managed to carry me along for five or six kilometres. The day I ran my first ever 10K I thought to myself, “Yeah. You and me, body, we got this.” But then my body betrayed me in a way I never could have imagined and I had to learn to run all over again.

The Cancer Research Winter Run was the first 10K I ran and I had decided that day I’d run it again the following year. Little did I know when I booked my place in the 2016 Winter Run that I’d be running in the midst of cancer treatment; bald, bloated and barely able to crawl to the toilet some days. Two days after my final chemotherapy, my alarm went off early and I dragged myself into central London and I wondered what on earth I had let myself in for. My stubborn streak, which has only grown more defined since being diagnosed with cancer, had made me determined to take on this challenge. I did not want cancer to stop me from doing something I had set my mind to, so I didn’t, regardless of how stupid it might have seemed to any outsiders. So many of my friends and family tried to warn me out of it but, after getting the go-ahead from my medical team, despite a raised eyebrow here and there, there was no way I was not finishing that race, even if it took me all day.

Alice-May Purkiss CRUK London Winter Run

It was a strange sensation being surrounded by a crowd of people and being asked by an unidentified voice of the tannoy, “Who here is currently undergoing treatment?” and being the only bald-headed person in the vicinity with their hand in the air.

I ran with a squad – something I’d never done before. My beloved sister and her partner travelled down from my hometown in the north east of England to run with me. My boyfriend and two of my closest friends made their way slowly and surely round the course with me, their love and excitement carrying me round when I felt like I couldn’t manage it. As with all Cancer Research events, we had back signs and mine, reading “I’m running for the end of my chemo”, led to so many of my fellow runners cheering me on, giving me high fives and hugs, reducing me once again to a running, snotty, teary mess. When I crossed the line, it felt like the biggest achievement of my life. I think it probably always will.

Alice-May Purkiss CRUK Winter Run

My treatment wrapped up in March of this year. I went through five surgeries, fertility treatment, six sessions of chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy and I tried to stay as active as I could throughout. And now I’m back to running as often as the fatigue I’m living with allows me to. And every time I get out there, I feel like I’m giving a massive two fingers up to cancer and the hand that it dealt me. I run for the freedom it gives me, I run to help process the enormity of the last 10 months, I run because it reduces the likelihood of my cancer returning. I run because, against my will, I have become a runner. I run to appreciate the glorious city I live in and I run to remember that my body and I have been through so much, and we will go through so much more in our lifetime.

Since finishing treatment, I’ve run another 10K race, Cancer Research’s Race for Life in Clapham, and this time my back sign read “I Race for Life for my right boob”. I set myself a challenge to finish somewhere in between the times of my BC (before cancer) 10K and my DC (during cancer) run, aiming for 1hr 20mins. Unbelievably, I finished at 1hr 9mins, just two minutes shy of my debut 10K time. Characteristically, I was annoyed at myself for not running just that bit faster to match, or even beat, my original time, to prove to cancer it hadn’t got the better of me. I took this as a sign I’m on the mend.

Running saved me and proved I could do anything I set my mind to when my body made me want to give up. Running has become my sanctuary and, as I continue my life post cancer, it’s one of the main methods I’m using to process what I’ve been through in the last year of my life. It is my salvation – not necessarily for my physical health, but for my mental health in the messy destruction that cancer leaves behind.

I will never be the fastest, I’ll never run the furthest. But I run because, against all odds, I love it. I run because I can.

Alice-May Purkiss is a Boobette for CoppaFeel, helping to educate women to spot the signs of breast cancer. Find out how to #checkyourchebs at coppafeel.org. You can read more of Alice’s work at alicemaypurkiss.co.uk.

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