Last summer, Camilla Hawkins, an occupational therapist from London, was battling back to fitness after suffering with long COVID since April 2020. She had managed to return to work fulltime when she was diagnosed with a multi-focal glioblastoma multiforme in August. It was a symptom she noticed while at work that prompted her to call her GP for advice. Camilla explains:
“In our weekly multidisciplinary meeting, I found myself struggling to verbalise my client feedback. This word-finding difficulty had been part of the symptoms I had experienced when initially having covid, so I put this down to perhaps that, or maybe a new onset menopausal symptom. “
At first, medics thought Camilla may have suffered a stroke, and after her GP advised she visit her local Emergency department, she was admitted to a stroke ward. Three weeks of investigations followed, before she received diagnosis of GBM. Understandably, the news came as a huge shock.
“The day before my GP telephone consultation I had participated in work as usual, and in fact had been more than usually active. The morning of the day I was admitted to hospital, I had been training with weights – an activity I’d only recently taken up in an attempt to manage my fatigue levels and also improve my running pace and endurance.
“I went overnight from being a fit and active occupational therapist to an inpatient, eventually diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour with a limited life expectancy.
“This type of tumour is always stage 4, and there is no cure.
“I had worked in oncology many years ago, and in HIV for over 25 years, so I was aware of the statistics that one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. However, the possibility that I might have a brain tumour had literally not entered my head (no pun intended!) I had even commented to the Stroke Consultant, “at least it’s not a brain tumour!”
Winning a London Marathon place
Camilla had been a runner for some years. She really enjoyed the community of parkrun, and making friends through the parkrun community. And she had also completed a marathon before – Amsterdam, in 2019.
She was reluctant to give running up. And so, having agreed a treatment programme with medics, which included surgery, radiotherapy and oral chemotherapy, she asked if she could carry on the activity – and was given the all clear, provided she did not exert herself too much. She had applied for a London Marathon place seven times before with no success, and did not have high hopes for the 2023 race. But then, she found out she was successful in the ballot!
“I could see the irony of being successful in the ballot in the context of long COVID and a life limiting brain tumour. I had always watched the coverage of the London marathon even when not running myself, and often became emotional when seeing the struggles some people overcame to participate and complete the distance.”
A challenge too far?
Taking on 26.2 miles is daunting at the best of times. Tackling a marathon while undergoing treatment for a brain tumour is a feat many would be nervous to attempt, and although Camilla hoped to make the start line, she had no way of knowing how she would feel on the day.
She trained as best she could, in between treatment cycles – even completing the full marathon distance in training – but made the decision to put fundraising on hold until she knew she had completed the challenge. There were stark differences between training for her first marathon, and this one.
“For Amsterdam, I was running three or four times a week, including track training and speed work – in comparison to a walk a couple of times a week, and a jog/walk strategy this time. In order to prepare for the additional hours on my feet, I walked the Capital Ring with friends I made through parkrun, and my running club, Viewtube.
“My friends and family were all incredibly supportive and encouraging. I am sure my family had concerns about whether it’s a good idea to try and complete a marathon, but they understood how important it is to me, and how much it means to me.”
In advance of race day, Camilla imagined she might feel a mixture of emotions, including frustration that she would not be able to run as quickly as she had in her previous marathon – but also looked forward to a well-earned sense of achievement if she was able to complete it.
For someone undergoing brain tumour treatment, making it to a marathon start line, ready to take on a grueling 26.2 miles, is a big achievement. So how did it go?
“I really enjoyed the event but was really disappointed with my time. Part of the reason I did a full marathon distance in training was to prepare myself for the length of time it might take me.
On the day I finished in 7:55 whereas in training I’d managed 6:15.
“I was very touched by the number of friends and family that came to support me. My best friend travelled from Edinburgh, and others from Ashford, Brighton, Farnborough, Surbiton and New Malden.
“Members of my running club were volunteering on a baggage truck and it was lovely to see friendly faces at the beginning and on the way around. I think it was harder for them to stand in the rain and cold than it was for me.
“The only Brain Tumour cheer point I noticed was on Tower Bridge, although my sister spotted another near the end. The support was great!
The medal is stunning!”
Camilla launched her fundraising page after the race, and quickly raised a remarkable £2,500 for The Brain Tumour Charity.
“Since setting up my fundraiser I have been staggered at people’s generosity. I have exceeded my original target fourfold.
“I have found it such a shocking, and bleak diagnosis to be facing, that I hope raising some funds for future research, and raising awareness might contribute to improving outcomes for myself, but more likely others, in the future.
“In a situation where I have little control, I am aware that taking part in this activity is a way of taking some control back.
“I know I’m certainly not the only entrant who ran this year’s marathon while facing health challenges.
“And… I’ve entered the ballot for next year!”
Get involved with fundraising!
If you’re inspired by Camilla’s story and want to find out how to get involved in fundraising, it’s easy. Just click the button below for loads of ideas and resources on how to fundraise for us.