Deborah James on running with cancer, her favourite races, and how to make the most of growth mindset

·10-min read
Photo credit: Instagram/bowelbabe
Photo credit: Instagram/bowelbabe

Deborah James was just 35 when she found out that she had stage 4 bowel cancer. She’s gone on to be an outspoken advocate for bowel cancer awareness and is one of the hosts of the award-winning podcast You, Me and the Big C. Deborah is also a keen runner, and spoke to the Runner’s World UK Podcast ahead of her appearance at the Vitality 10K at the end of May.

We chatted about Deborah’s experience of running, how she manages her mental health, and the importance of just getting your trainers on.

What was your journey into running?

I’ve always been pretty sporty my whole life. I used to be a gymnast growing up. Sport has been part and parcel of growing up since day one. Running has always been that thing that you can do alongside your job at some point, because you don’t need to rely upon the gym being open or whatever it is. I used to work as a teacher and used to need to get my trainers on and run, albeit not very fast.

But my first entry into longer distance running was when I first met my husband in 2005. I was 22 at the time, and you know when you’re basically showing off to your partner? I was like, ‘I want to run a marathon!’ And he was like, ‘I want to run a marathon!’ So the next week we both signed up to the New York marathon – this was in January and New York happens in the November. That was my entry into running for medals – I’m now a medal collector.

I’ve always used the milestones – whether that’s a 5K or a 10K – to rebuild myself or to celebrate things. Even before I had cancer, it was those kinds of events, I realised I had to have that kind of goal or timetable to work towards. And I like the big shiny medals! I don’t think there’s any shame in saying that, because I look back at those medals – for whatever it is, whether it’s a local 5K race or the New York marathon – and I feel really proud because at least I said yes, and I got my trainers on and I did it.

How significant have those races been for you since your diagnosis?

I have been [to the Royal Parks Half Marathon] at every race, whether it’s with my son, newly born, doing the walking half marathon, whether it’s with the 10K. But there’s one year I didn’t run it – the first year that I was diagnosed with cancer. Instead 30 of my friends and family all ran it for charity. But while I was really grateful, I got so emotional that I couldn’t stand there and watch other people run. I actually got incredibly upset about it because I wanted to run. Just because I had cancer, I was like, ‘Why aren’t I running?’ It was a bit of a lightbulb moment. Essentially there was no reason that I shouldn’t be running.

You did the virtual marathon this year - how did that go? It was rainy and horrible, wasn’t it?

I loved it from an emotional perspective, but from a practical perspective it was hell to be honest with you. Anyone who was out that day running will know it was really good British hideous weather.

My commitment to the London marathon goes back years in that I’ve always wanted to run the London marathon. Ever since I ran the New York marathon I’m like, ‘If I have to run one more marathon, it will be London.’ I applied on the ballot for years and years, eventually got my place then got pregnant. I deferred it, then got injured and deferred it again, but there’s only so many times, so I never got my place back. There was a moment, over a year ago, when on paper I had no evidence of disease so it’s a really good place to be. I think it was on BBC Breakfast, Louise Mitchum said, ‘Go on then, are you going to run the London marathon with me?’ And I said, ‘Yep, go on then!’ As you do. And I managed to get a space in it for that year and then lo-and-behold Covid happened. I ran it socially distanced with another girlfriend of mine to raise money for the Royal Marsden, alongside my sister as well. It was really emotional, but I remember thinking I’ve got to live another year just to run the marathon.

It just so happens that it now falls on October 3, which is also my 40th birthday weekend, and I was told that I would never see my 40th birthday. So now I am planning on seeing my 40th birthday and running a marathon. If I make it – which would be my five year diagnosis, give or take a few weeks – I don’t care how slow I am, I am going to be an absolute disaster. I am going to be crying for 24 of the 20 odd miles.

Do you think that setting yourself running challenges has made you feel a bit more positive about the future?

Absolutely. It’s really difficult isn’t it, because people will say, ‘I know that you’re going to beat cancer’ but the reality is none of us really have control over our cancer. But we do have control over our mind and the way that we handle it.

I have two options – and trust me I have really rubbish days where I don’t want to do anything – but I recognise now that I have tools in my bag. As we all do, I think we’ve had to dig deep during Covid. When I am feeling rubbish, the running is a kind of, ‘How do you flip your mindset.’

Whether it’s running or walking, putting my trainers on and calling myself a runner is a really good starting point for me. Because if I get bad news, there’s only so many hours I can sit and cry over it. And then it’s like, ‘How am I going to get out of it?’ You just spiral otherwise. It allows you to cope with it, it’s a coping mechanism.

Also, it’s the only time I feel quite free. Anyone, whether they’re a proud plodder or a speedy runner, will recognise the feeling of freedom that you get when you run.

I can never stick to a plan. If I was training for something, that’s just not an option for me. I have to listen to my body – we all have to listen to our bodies – but for me it’s pretty unpredictable and I’m quite often thrown a curveball. I’m not fast but I managed to get my 5k under half an hour which I’m really chuffed about.

I just had a major thoracic resection before Christmas which involved two deflated lungs and all those kinds of things. For anyone that’s had a lot of lung surgery in their life, they’ll know that exercise and movement is part of my rehabilitation. So the day before I went in to have my operation I ran my fastest 5K. This is three or four months post-surgery and I’m still not back there. But the reason I did that was because it was now or never. If I didn’t do it now, I knew it wasn’t going to happen for another six months. I have done the Couch to 5K app but I’ve done it about five times over the last five years because every time I have an operation I have to start again. People assume that your progress is always going to be on an upward curve, but for people like me it’s never going to be like that. It’s always going to be making the most of whatever moment you can find.

Can we talk about the Vitality 10K and the Celebrate You campaign – what was it about that race and that campaign that attracted you to it?

I’ve been involved with it for a number of years. When it was happening in real life it was a great race: in the middle of London, it ends in the mall, the atmosphere is really electric and the support around it is amazing. So just from a race perspective, it’s a really fun race that you can do with people.

And then the whole theme is running for your head and your heart. It’s all about celebrating you. The first year that we did it there were nearly 1,000 women that signed up under this wave called Celebrate You, which is exactly what I’m talking about in terms of being that proud plodder and saying, ‘Yeah I can give it a go.’ A lot of people think they’re not runners and they think they have to get to a certain speed to call themselves a runner. They think that if you walk a little bit you’re not a runner. I think people are a little bit scared to just say yes. So the wave encourages people to just say yes but also to recognise that for a lot of us, running is a massive tool that we use and it’s great for our mental health.

Right now we’re all aware of the challenges in terms of the Covid climate that we’re in, and we want to get more people to recognise that a way to support yourself out of it is through exercise. Sometimes people just need a bit of encouragement. Sometimes people just need to feel, ‘Oh go on then, I’ll give it a go.’ You sometimes just need somebody to persuade you to do something. And sometimes you end up doing some brilliant things.

Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images

You’ve got a new book coming out haven’t you Deborah? It’s called How To Live When You Could Be Dead. It’s an interesting title, what’s it all about?

It’s either coming out on the weekend of the marathon or, knowing me, I think it will be the New Year. You know sometimes you have to be honest with yourself Deborah and recognise that you’re not going to meet your deadline.

Essentially, my background was in teaching. For sixteen years I worked alongside loads of really fun education researchers, looking at mindset. We’ve all heard of growth mindset and what it looks like – it’s the idea that you can use your mind to flip situations. What we found in education, based on the work of a lady called Carol Dweck, was that it’s all well and good having a positive mindset, but when we in our adult lives implement it, none of us really know what to do. We don’t have the tools! We all go, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ve got a growth mindset.’ But then we go, ‘Oh no, I can’t do a 10K.’ It’s because we actually haven’t been given the building blocks.

Carol actually came out recently, like last year, and said, ‘My theory is great. However unless we know how to actually break it down and apply it, it’s pointless knowing that you think you can do anything.’

So essentially, from my own experience of living with cancer and having to dig pretty deep, I talk to lots of other people who have faced pretty challenging situations and ask: what have they learned? How have they become resilient? How have they flipped their mindset and what have they learned from that? It’s essentially about self-reflection, being prepared to fail.

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