When the time comes, we will be ready
A blog I initially wrote for parkrun, published 12 January 2021
There is no doubt that living with a cancer diagnosis in 2020 has been even more difficult than in normal years. I work as an oncologist and have watched first hand as COVID has added challenge by challenge to anybody going through cancer treatment or coming out the other side. Across the UK people have had to attend hospital for treatment alone, without the support of friends and families. They have received bad news over the telephone rather than face to face. They have had to shield, isolating themselves from those who would usually support them, long after national restrictions eased. And they have lived with fear. Fear not just that their cancer will progress or return, but additional fear of contracting COVID-19 when their bodies are vulnerable, or fear that their treatment may get cancelled, modified or delayed because of restrictions on capacity due to COVID.
In general, the NHS has I think, done a pretty good job at continuing cancer treatment through COVID-19. But there is no doubt that, even in places where medical and surgical treatments have been able to continue more or less as normal, we are offering a ‘slimline’ service without the ‘add-ons’ that make cancer treatment less isolating and more manageable. In part this is due to social distancing requirements in hospitals; but it’s also due to the negative effects of COVID-19 on cancer charity funding. The effects of social isolation can’t be underestimated. Nor can the effects of hospital stays without the support of visits from loved ones. Not only has COVID-19 made 2020 tougher for those experiencing cancer treatment, but also for those of us who work in cancer care; I wrote about this recently for the Guardian.
Many people with cancer seek peer support from others in similar situations. Social distancing in hospitals and the shift to phone consultations has removed previous chance opportunities for people with cancer to support each other, and many of the support groups that would normally exist, mainly provided by charities, have either folded or moved to online formats. Cancer, a diagnosis that can feel isolating at the best of times, has become even more so, both physically and psychologically. Annie Walton, manager at Maggie’s Nottingham, a charity that provides free cancer support in centres across the UK tells me “Emotional health has never been more important for patients with cancer and their loved ones. Anxiety is at an all time high as patients have become even more isolated due to lockdown”.
At 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer, provided by Move charity, we have had to shift our modus operandi dramatically. Our goal is to encourage and empower anybody affected by cancer to live an active and fulfilling life despite a cancer diagnosis. We know that being active has multiple physical and psychological benefits during and after cancer treatment and have created a national active support group with a difference that encourages those living with and after cancer to walk, jog, run, cheer or volunteer at 5K Your Way groups at parkruns across the country on the last Saturday of every month. Our groups have now been on hold for 9 months and we know that, despite our best efforts to support our community with virtual challenges, Move Your Way exercise sessions, and inspirational and educational interviews, people affected by cancer across the UK are missing the monthly meet ups.
What I hadn’t realised though until recently, was the power of hope that 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer, can provide to anybody who is just embarking on cancer treatment for the first time. A couple of months ago someone who had recently been diagnosed with cancer in his back and had stood up for the first time after two weeks of bed-rest told me, “It finally dawned on me why you called your charity 5KYW. Because everyone comes out in a different way after treatment and surgery and mine will be a walk, jog, hobble, I don’t care. But I’m gonna do it, with my family, with my friends, with the dog and I’m gonna do it my way.” Simply by existing, for many people given a cancer diagnosis, 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer is breaking down traditional barriers regarding what is possible with cancer, whether or not they are part of our face-to-face community.
Right now, with vaccination starting in the UK, there is room for hope and we are moving towards 2021 with optimism and confidence. 2021 will be infinitely better than 2020. However, we are under no illusions that we will face significant challenges when we re-launch our groups. Our community will have changed. Some people who have finished their treatment may have moved on psychologically and no longer require our support. Tragically, some of our community have died. And in all likelihood, even after vaccination is widespread across the UK, many will be anxious about returning to big groups. A year of fear and anxiety will not disappear overnight.
However, we believe that the demand for initiatives that support those affected by cancer to live active, fulfilled lives, such as 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer, will be even bigger than ever. Every day in the UK, around 1000 people are told they have cancer. Because of COVID, some of these will have been diagnosed late; received this news alone; or started treatment isolated from their families and friends. Those diagnosed before the pandemic will have continued their cancer treatment during a year that may have been more challenging mentally than anybody not affected by chronic illness could possibly imagine. Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we offer people affected by cancer the support networks they need, and continue to promote the message that being active during and after cancer treatment is one of the best things someone with a cancer diagnosis can do for their short and long term physical and mental health.
Right now, we don’t know when will be the right time to re-launch our ‘real-life’ 5K Your Way groups. But we do know that when that time comes we will be ready. 5K Your Way, Move Against Cancer version two will be even more energised, driven and passionate than 5K Your Way version one and we cannot wait for that day to come.