Two weeks into the New Year, how are your resolutions going? Lots of us decide that January is the ideal time to kick-start our exercise routine but that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to get out the door when it's wet and cold. We all know the benefits of regular exercise - getting fit, sleeping better, improved mental health and losing weight - but two years ago I discovered additional gifts of running that got me through one of the most difficult periods of my life. Maybe my story will be the added motivation that you need.
I've been a runner for many years. I've run marathons, parkruns and all distances in between. I had a year of running events planned to celebrate my 50th birthday in 2015 but that all unravelled when I found a lump in my breast, and was diagnosed with cancer.
A cancer diagnosis plunges you into a disorienting world where you don't know what you can depend on anymore. I was losing my routine, the plans I had made for the year and I felt like my very identity was disappearing. I wanted to hold onto what was important to me so when I discovered I needed to have chemotherapy first, I went to see my oncologist with one main question - can I keep running? It turned out that he was a marathon runner too. He said that no one had ever asked him that before but he didn't see why not. In between telling me all the worst side-effects of chemo, he sang the praises of German marathons and told me I should do Berlin next.
And he also gave me an 18-week plan for chemotherapy - six treatments, three weeks apart with difficult weeks when the drugs would kick in and hopefully an easier week before the next treatment. This all felt very familiar. The year before I had done an 18-week marathon training plan with similar cycles of hard weeks of training and easier weeks when your body adjusts. I looked at it and thought, 'I can do this.'
I ran to my first chemotherapy appointment, seven miles along the river from Kew Bridge to Hammersmith. I wanted to arrive at the hospital in my trainers and on my terms. Ten days later when I started to feel a bit more normal again, I did a shaky couple of miles around the common to see whether I could still run. It was hesitant and slow, but it felt fantastic. Over the next week I gradually built up the distance I could run, and ran to my second chemo session with my friend Lucy. I set off weighed down with sorrow and anxiety; I arrived at the hospital having run through sunshine with great conversation, feeling liberated and ready for what was ahead. I resolved to run to all my chemo sessions if I could. Even if I got the underground most of the way and only jogged the last few hundred metres, I wanted to keep running to these sessions that were going to make me feel so ill.
You see, as well as making you fitter, running helps to build your resilience. Those mornings that you force yourself out of the door for a run even though you don't feel like it; that time you ran for longer than you ever had done before without taking a break; that moment in a race where you stick to your pace when everything in you wants to slow down; that final hill rep that you make yourself do even though you arrive at the top gasping for breath; they all serve to strengthen your character and help you overcome difficulty. They make you less inclined to give up when the going gets tough, and more likely to find ways to cope with the situation in front of you. I found that having a goal to aim for, having friends to run with and having a regular habit of running all gave me a sense of purpose through my treatment and a determination to hold on to what I loved doing.
This is not a prescription for everyone, of course. Cancer and its treatment are so varied and people respond very differently to what is done to them. But there is no need to stop running just because you are diagnosed with cancer; if you want to run and you have the energy then you should. All cancer patients have to cope with fatigue, but running has been shown to reduce fatigue rather than cause it. And regular runners who sadly get the same news as I did will be well equipped to cope with what lies ahead of them, because of the habits and character they have developed through their running.
I did run to all my chemotherapy sessions. My sisters, my sons and my friends ran with me to the final one in September and my memory of that day is of the laughter and conversation on the run, not the treatment that came afterwards. Running helped me rewrite the story of what was happening to me. I hope you never have to hear the words 'I'm sorry it's cancer', but there's no doubt that you will face challenges in the year ahead and running could help you rise to them. As you develop new exercise habits this year, you may benefit in more ways than you expect.