Yesterday morning I ran a 10K. It took place in the grounds of Speke Hall in Liverpool, a nearly 500 year old manor house near the river. No charity fund raising, just me, running. For the sheer pleasure of being able to. It was a humid damp day, but it was fun to do this with friends, and go for breakfast afterwards. There’s a one minute film of the run here.
Runs are often done to raise money for charities by people who’ve been treated for cancer. Me included. Last year, one of the goals I’d set myself was to run a 10K, and raise money for charity. The charity I’d chosen was Yes to Life, who had helped me during my treatment for breast cancer, and I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to them, and raise money for them so they can continue to help other cancer patients.
In November 2009, I had my sixth surgery following my beast cancer diagnosis in February 2007. I’m pragmatic enough not to say it was my last surgery, or that have finished my treatment and surgery. I’m still on prescription drugs, I still have regular check ups with various doctors, I still have minor surgery to finish my breast reconstruction. But, as far as I know, for now, I have finished the major treatment, and the major surgeries. For now.
So 2010, last year, was a new kind of year for me, as in a less medically-focussed year, or I hoped it would be.
The 10K I plan to run is in May 2010, so as the new year arrives I start training. I’ve run before, before all ‘this’ happened, before I spent three years in and out of hospital, of lying down for large periods of time, before fatigue related to cancer treatment completely knocked me out. So, the task ahead of me seems quite daunting. Now I can only run for about one minute before I have to walk, and to manage to run a whole 10K, that’s just over six miles, I will need to be able to run for about an hour. So I find Coach K, a fitness coach, and we train together each week, she sets me homework and I focus absolutely and completely on doing the 10K. My aim, to run it, not in any particular time, but to run the whole course.
Training goes well, I am extremely determined, as I can be. I play squash most weeks, I do my running homework and I go out walking. Each week I can run for a bit longer, and feel a bit fitter.
In April I launch my sponsorship appeal. I set the target as £1,000. I don’t know if that’s ambitious or not, I’ve never done anything like this before. I make a couple of short films of me and Karen training together, and post them on my website. I am tenacious, plucky, enthusiastic. I have a goal.
Then it is the day for the run. It’s a run that is only for women – the Liverpool Women’s 10K. It’s a popular run, several thousand participants. It’s a chilly day, sunny, ideal weather really. I have a new red vest. Of course I am not wearing pink, and I have gold tinsel deely boppers. I will stand out. I go to the commentator’s hut, and I speak over the tannoy. I say I’ve been treated for breast cancer for three years and that I’m raising money for charity, please support me. Ronnie, my husband, films me so I can make a celebratory film for my website. It is an occasion.
And there are other women there, running in pink t-shirts, raising money for breast cancer charities, some of them with names of friends or relatives pinned to the back of their tops. I have always felt a connection with women who’ve had breast cancer diagnoses, we share something. These women, the pink t-shirt wearing women, they might be breast cancer patients, or they might be supporting their friends or relatives – after all the pink culture does not differentiate, we can all join it. I see them, of course I do, but I feel that I am different. Why do I feel different? I feel different because I think I have seen through the pink facade.
Extract from Being Sarah:
And now I am well, I am doing what women do. Running for charity. But I am not doing it in that way. That is, running for a pink charity. Not one of those searching for this elusive ‘cure’. I don’t believe we will find a cure for cancer, or not anytime soon. It is not in the interests of those who have the power in our society. Not government, but big pharma, yes those of corporate greed, where patients equal profit. Am I cynical to think that sick people are very profitable for pharmaceutical companies?
This is not my original thinking. Plenty of people have said this before me. Martin J Walker is deeply suspicious about the cancer charities, calling them ‘footsoldiers for the chemical industry’.
And I finish in 64 minutes. I feel good, I have done it. Done it as a personal goal, and done it for raising money. I make a short film thanking everyone for supporting me. I am seen as a ‘success’, I have been treated for breast cancer, had a tough time, and now, look at me, I am running a 10K like a ‘normal’ person. I am putting breast cancer behind me. Is that the message that I am giving out? Was I an accidental stereotype?
At the time, I see this as a personal goal – for me to run, as I had before, that is before breast cancer; and for me to raise money for the charity that helped me. And I raise more than my goal, £1,200 in total which will be used to help individual cancer patients, people like me. But, is it that simple? I have never liked pink, have never joined groups of pink-wearing cheerful women or supported pink charities. I don’t like all that fun stuff, that jolly cheery pink wearing. I was very clear in my publicity for this that this wasn’t a pink thing. But am I – I mean was I – I now wonder, somehow, even unconsciously, caught up in the ‘survivorship’ culture?
Survivor is not a term I use to describe myself. I’m alive now, and I may or may not die of breast cancer. A big element of the ‘survivor’ culture are the highly visible events where women run or walk for a cause – the cause usually being ‘the cure’ or some version of it. Am I unwittingly following a stereotype? Did I give the message that breast cancer was ‘done’, that it was behind me? Because it’s not and I don’t know if it ever will be.
So now I wonder. That’s all. That maybe I gave out the wrong message there. Because the way we view breast cancer is so simplistic – I am diagnosed, I am treated, and then I am lucky enough to be a survivor, and I may choose to celebrate my survivor status by doing something highly visible involving a charity. That’s the script we have for breast cancer, the one that avoids the other possible breast cancer experience where I am diagnosed with secondaries which I go on to die from.
And, the simple view of breast cancer is so prevalent, but in reality, it’s massively more complex than that. And we are just not shown it, it’s never made obvious enough how utterly miserable and terrifying the experience of breast cancer is, and continues to be. Whilst in treatment, and also long after initial treatments may appear to be over. The dominant culture, heavily supported by the pink orthodoxy, promotes the simplistic and triumphal view of ‘survivorship’. And so my action, my running for charity, could potentially be seen by others as a ‘survivor’ celebrating a ‘triumph’, because that’s the only way we have to view it. So, was I an accidental stereotype, back there in May 2010?
Ronnie and I now live in a changed life, not one we would have chosen; but, for the most part, we’re enjoying ourselves, living for the moments and running for the joy of living. But do not mistake this for triumph – it’s for now.