Cancer won't stop Chris Johnson from running the London Marathon

·4-min read
Photo credit: Lee Brown
Photo credit: Lee Brown

When Chris Johnson sets off at the London Marathon this October, he will have achieved something extraordinary. For the father of three from Sunderland, the race is a bucket-list event that he has tried to take part in for several years. But 2021 may be his last chance to take part in a long race – Johnson has incurable cancer.

He started running in 2013, when he was in his early thirties and getting ‘a little podgy’. He caught the bug and began running most days, later entering 10Ks and half marathons. After a few years, life got in the way. By 2017 he was still running a few miles a couple of times a week, as well as taking part in the occasional spin class. He describes his routine then as ‘nothing too hectic, but just enough to keep myself fit’.

In June 2019, everything changed. He started feeling weak and his energy levels dropped rapidly. He noticed his treadmill runs were taking longer to complete and soon he couldn’t exercise at all. Assuming it was routine tiredness, Johnson increased his coffee intake for a couple of weeks. But his condition continued to worsen, so he went to his GP. After a few tests and transfusions, Johnson was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST) in his small bowel – a relatively rare form of tumour, the symptoms of which are similar to those of the more common bowel cancer.

He had an operation to remove the tumour in January last year, but in July, he learned the cancer had spread to his liver – he had incurable secondary liver cancer.

With such devastating news, you could forgive a person for giving up on their fitness goals. But Johnson had other ideas. Just before Christmas, he switched his medication from imatinib, which drained his energy and made him nauseous, to sunitinib, which, he says, has ‘more manageable’ side effects. With more energy, Johnson got a new lease of life and started lacing up his trainers again.

‘I decided that I wanted to do something positive and give myself something to focus on. So I started running again.’

Johnson initially intended to take part in the Great North Run, an event close to his heart. ‘I really enjoy it. It's a great atmosphere and, being from the North East, it's your home event,’ he says. But when his fitness returned quicker than expected, he sets his sights on the London Marathon.

‘It’s a bucket-list event for me; I haven't done it before. I've watched it on the TV a lot of times, the atmosphere looks great. And I lived in London for a while, so I've seen people run past. It's the one that I wanted to do.’

Johnson contacted Children with Cancer – the charity he had partnered with for the Great North Run – and the organisation secured him a spot in the race. Assuming his current fitness levels continue, and allowing for some ups and downs as a result of his treatment, he hopes to run the marathon in four hours, which would be a return to the sorts of times he ran five or six years ago, before his diagnosis.

To do that, Johnson is turning attention to his diet, which, he admits, was ‘pretty rubbish’ until Easter. He hasn’t yet cut anything out, and he’s still partial to chocolate and ice cream, but he’s eating less processed food and ensuring he gets enough protein through staples such as chicken and eggs.

‘I've trained for half marathons before so I will get more obsessive about it as I get closer to the races and everything will become more controlled,’ he says. ‘I know, realistically, this could quite easily be my last healthy year. I'm absolutely at the mercy of my medication. At the moment I feel fit, but this time next year, it might not be the case.’

He’s remarkably upbeat for someone in his position. In every picture he posts on social media, Johnson is beaming, clearly delighted to be embarking on this marathon challenge. ‘Running until I’m exhausted makes me feel alive,’ he says. ‘It reminds me that I’ve still got some time yet.’

Chris Johnson is raising money for Children with Cancer: uk.virginmoneygiving.com/johnsoc1

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