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I felt guilty after being diagnosed with breast cancer while my dad was sick

Sarah discovered she had breast cancer shortly after her father was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. She found staying active, along with support from her running community, help her cope.

It took a while for reality to sink in 

In Autumn 2018, my father was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. Then, in May 2019, I found out I had stage 3 breast cancer. 

I was so anxious about telling my family while they were dealing with everything else. Up until that point, we had been seeing them most weekends and supporting them the best we could. 

When I did tell them, they were all shocked. It took a while for reality to sink in. I was always seen as the fit and healthy one. I had run a couple of marathons and had stopped eating meat a few years ago.  

As the one who had been diagnosed, I felt a responsibility to support and prepare people for the news. I felt guilty that suddenly a lot of my energy was transferred elsewhere, that I was unable to help with things that I had done before. I felt that I needed to be strong to reassure everyone else that it would be fine.  

My dad passed away while I was in treatment 

My dad was a great source of support and was a role model for me in many ways. He gave me lots of good advice. He was so positive throughout his diagnosis and treatment, and I think that really helped me to keep positive.  

Before he was really poorly at the end, we would talk about the different types of treatment we had and the side effects. He had a special treat box that we would all contribute to. We used to joke that I had taken drastic steps to get access to it! 

The worst part was not seeing him at the end of his life. He was sick in hospital and I’d just had a round of chemotherapy, so the risk of me picking something up was quite high. When I started treatment, we talked about how he would see me recover after completing it, which sadly he didn’t get to do.  

I managed to stay active throughout my treatment  

During treatment, I was tired and felt sick a lot of the time, but I did find that being active helped me physically and mentally. 

I used to set myself little targets, like a walk to the corner shop to buy a newspaper or to the station each day to meet my husband from work. I would then gradually increase my steps each day. I planned different walks in new places and took opportunities to go for longer walks further away from home. I also used to meet a friend for a walk each week, which would invariably involve cake (an added incentive!). 

The most frustrating time, physically, was just after surgery as that was when I was least active. I found that quite tricky.  

I quickly got back into running 

When I received my diagnosis, I was training for my first ultra-marathon, so I was gutted and thought that I would not be able to run at all. The healthcare professionals explained that I could continue with exercise as long as I didn’t overexert myself, leaving me more vulnerable to infections.  

After my first round of chemotherapy, I felt very tired so it took nearly a week before I was ready to try and run. During the first few runs, I tracked my heart rate closely and interspersed running with walking when I needed to. I felt that was a good way to make sure I wasn’t pushing myself too hard. As I got more confident, I just listened to my body. 

I found that after each chemotherapy I would need to gradually build up my fitness again. So, by the end of each three-week period, I was able to tackle slightly longer distances. I found that it was particularly helpful to have a run on days I was taking steroids.  

It’s important to have support from others 

I kept doing parkrun during treatment and found that was a very supportive community. Sometimes I ran the 5km (and made myself a new list of post-chemo personal bests!), sometimes I walked it and sometimes I just volunteered. I would really recommend parkrun (when it's back again) for anyone, whether you are in active treatment or not.  

Some of my fellow runners were having treatment or had recently had treatment so it was a great way of sharing experiences. There are also specific groups such as 5k Your Way for those with a cancer diagnosis.  

Going through breast cancer changed me 

The main difference I have noticed is that I’m more patient and that some things don’t bother me as much. I’m more reflective, I value my friendships more and want to spend more time with people. I expected to be a bit more impulsive and take more opportunities to do things, but I’m still tired a lot of the time. 

I'm also still working through lots of issues, which I hope some counselling will help with. I started a phased return to work in February and have been working throughout the pandemic, which has been great in lots of ways as it has kept me busy. 

Right now, I’m training for the London Marathon and have been raising money for Breast Cancer Now. 

My advice to others in recovery would be to listen to your body and take it easy. Do activities that you enjoy in places that you love, set yourself small targets, but don’t worry if you miss them.

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