22.05.2024

Awe-inspiring stories from Cancer Research UK’s drive to raise millions to help conquer disease

The 41-year-old mother-of-two with incurable breast , running to give hope to others facing an uncertain future. The woman racing to boost funding for pancreatic cancer research – the disease that killed her mum on the day of her wedding.

And the three siblings who, astonishingly, have had their stomachs removed to stop them developing a rare genetic cancer that has stalked their family – but haven’t let it stop them from tackling tough, muddy runs to raise thousands.

These are just three awe-inspiring stories of participants in this year’s Cancer Research UK Race For Life.

Now in its 30th year, more than ten million people have taken part so far, raising a staggering £920 million – and The Mail on Sunday is backing the drive, which helps fund cutting-edge research into the disease that affects one in two of us.

This year there are more than 450 events at nearly 190 locations across the UK, with women, men and children running, walking or jogging 3km, 5km or 10km.

Anyone can sign up (see panel on the right) regardless of fitness, background or experience – and participants include everyone from OAPs and mothers pushing prams to people with their pets and devoted joggers. You can race alone or in groups, and you certainly don’t need to have had cancer or even know anyone who has.

But read on to hear about some of the inspiring individuals whose lives have been touched by the illness and how they’ve not let it stand in their way…

FORMIDABLE: Muddy Sophie Springford, who has breast cancer, after a run with husband Jamie

FORMIDABLE: Muddy Sophie Springford, who has breast cancer, after a run with husband Jamie

IT’S TOO LATE FOR ME BUT I STILL WANT TO DO MY BIT

When mother-of-two Sophie Springford was told the devastating news that she had incurable breast cancer at 37, and given just two years to live, she vowed ‘to live life to the full and make every day count, whatever my future’.

True to her word, she has defied the odds – earlier this month she was one of hundreds of runners who took part in the Pretty Muddy Race For Life in Norwich. The 5km obstacle course includes mud pits, climbing frames, tunnels and a giant inflatable slide.

By her side throughout was husband Jamie, a primary care medic, and their sons Isaac, 16, and Jude, 13, as well as three other families.

Sophie says: ‘The cancer has spread to my bones – it’s in my spine and hips – so I’m in pain every day and have to be careful.

‘The obstacles that involved climbing and crawling I just walked around – I was chief photographer for those bits. But I got around the whole thing and together we raised more than £1,800 for Cancer Research UK.’

Sophie noticed a lump in her right breast in April 2018, a few months before her 37th birthday.

‘I got it checked out immediately, but assumed the tests would come back negative,’ she says. However, a mammogram and biopsy showed she had early-stage breast cancer.

Sophie underwent surgery to remove the lump but, a month later, as doctors were concerned it hadn’t removed all of the tumour, she had a double mastectomy.

Then, at her six-month check-up, she showed doctors some small spots that had appeared on her chest around her surgery scars, and she was rushed in for more tests.

‘I was told the cancer was in my liver – and that meant it was incurable,’ says Sophie. ‘It was horrific, but I couldn’t just fall apart, as much as I wanted to – I had to carry on being a mum to my sons.’

Sophie was put on chemotherapy, hormone-blocking medication and palbociclib – a newer, targeted breast cancer drug that stops tumours growing.

‘My liver is clear now and the cancer in my bones is stable. I’ve seen my 40th birthday, I’m watching my boys grow up, I’ve lived more life since my diagnosis than I did before – and I’m hoping for even more time with my boys.’

Sophie says she’s taking part in the Race For Life for those who are also facing a difficult prognosis and to support research that might help incurable breast cancer patients in the future.

‘I know mine will progress again,’ she says. ‘Even if something new is discovered, it’s probably too late for me now, but I want to do my bit to help the next generation.’

THEY DIDN’T SAY A WORD — I KNEW MY MUM HAD GONE

It was meant to be the happiest day of her life. But hours before her wedding on October 8, 2016, Lara Heaney received the news she had been dreading.

Her mum, Ann, had died that morning, just seven months after being told she had pancreatic cancer – which is almost always fatal if caught late.

‘At 6am I was woken by the intercom in my flat. It was my dad, Andrew, and my younger brother, David,’ says Lara, 36, a deputy manager at an aquarium in Newquay, Cornwall. ‘They didn’t have to say a word, I knew Mum had gone. I just said, «No, not today!» and burst into tears.’

Ann’s presence was heavily felt throughout Lara’s big day as she married highways manager Sean, 40. Lara says: ‘Apparently Mum’s last words were that the show had to go on. So, in her honour, we pulled together and vowed to make it special. And even though it was an October day, Sean and I walked out of the church into blazing sunshine – Dad turned to me and said, «That’s your mum shining down.»

‘I knew we had to laugh, dance, drink and enjoy ourselves in Mum’s memory. And, apart from when I first got the news, I didn’t cry once in sorrow all day.’

THE SHOW GOES ON: Lara Heaney with her late mother Ann, who died seven months after her cancer diagnosis

TOUGH STUFF: Lara (centre) with friends Louise (left) and Lexi after their muddy fundraiser

TOUGH STUFF: Lara (centre) with friends Louise (left) and Lexi after their muddy fundraiser

Ann was only 59 when she died. She’d been given a crushing diagnosis that, with high-strength chemotherapy, she might see out nine months. Without it she might have only three months left. She opted for treatment, as her other daughter, Sarah, 40, was expecting a baby. Ann was desperate to see Lara’s wedding day, too.

‘It’s been more than seven years since Mum died, and while I’ve never shied away from talking about her and our wedding day, it’s only now that I’ve finally opened up about all that happened,’ says Lara, now mother to five-year-old son Lowen.

Ann’s premature death has driven Lara to support the Race For Life campaign in the hope that research will find better treatments for pancreatic cancer. Last year she completed a 5km event in Truro, Cornwall, and last weekend took part in the Pretty Muddy Race For Life.

Lara says: ‘Lowen never knew Mum, but he and Sean cheered me on. Mum would have so loved to have met our boy.’

Having our stomachs removed didn’t stop us

Three siblings running in the Sandwell Pretty Muddy Race For Life in June have already overcome huge obstacles in their life – having had their stomachs surgically removed to prevent cancer.

Tahir and Omar Khan and Sophia Ahmed underwent the drastic surgery after losing their mother, Pearl, at 49 and sister Yasmin at 32 from the disease.

A series of tests revealed they all carry the genetic mutation CDH1, which meant they had a 90 per cent chance of developing aggressive stomach cancer.

Surgery has cut that risk to almost zero. Now, the West Midlands family are determined to ‘give back’ to Cancer Research UK, the charity they credit for saving their lives.

STRONG GENES: Sophia Ahmed, far left, with her family at a Race For Life event

STRONG GENES: Sophia Ahmed, far left, with her family at a Race For Life event

Sophia, 43, said: ‘We lost Mum to this horrible cancer just six months after she was diagnosed. Then we lost our sister ten years later.

‘I read in Yasmin’s hospital notes that it might be genetic, so I did some research and found out Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge was doing a study into cancer genes. I contacted them and volunteered us for testing.

‘The results came back showing three out of four us were carriers of the gene – called CDH1.’

Sister Tracey, 52, wasn’t a carrier, but Tahir, Omar and Sophia all opted to have their stomachs removed in a procedure known as a total gastrectomy. Surgeons then create a small pouch that collects food by connecting the oesophagus to the small intestine.

The family last year began fundraising for Cancer Research UK. ‘We did our first Race For Life, which was the best day of our lives. We raised around £7,000 by the end, which was fantastic,’ says Sophia.

In December, her 19-year-old son, Zain, was found to carry the CDH1 gene.

‘In this year’s Race For Life, Zain will be running with us and we can’t wait to raise funds and awareness for the charity. We owe them everything.’

TELLING OUR GIRLS WAS THE HARDEST THING EVER

Stephen Daniels, 43, was one of hundreds of runners who took part in the Race For Life 5k in Lydiard Park, Swindon, earlier this month.

The marketing manager was joined by his wife Kate, 43, and their daughter Grace, 13. Reaching the finish line was a significant achievement for the family – not only because Grace had broken her leg just weeks before the race, but also because Stephen is receiving end-of-life care for an incurable brain tumour.

‘Grace really wanted to do the race, despite the injury,’ he says. ‘So we walked most of it together as a family, supporting each other. It was really special.’

IT’S SO SIMPLE TO ENTER AND RAISE VITAL CASH

It couldn’t be easier to enter a Race For Life event. Go to raceforlife.org and you can search for one due to take place in the general location you’re interested in.

You can further refine the search by adding the type of event you’d like to join – 3km, 5km, 10km, Pretty Muddy or Pretty Muddy Kids – as well as dates.

Once you’ve picked one, click on ‘event info’ which takes you to the specific race’s home page. This is where you can enter.

Most charge an entry fee, which is between £10 and £20 for adults and less for children.

Fill out the form, make the payment and you’ll be emailed an information pack to help you start fundraising.

Stephen was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2021 after suffering a massive seizure. The father-of-two – his oldest daughter, Sophia, is 15 – was told he had stage-four glioblastoma – a very aggressive form of brain cancer which affects about 3,000 people in the UK every year. The average survival time is about 15 months, with less than ten per cent living longer than five years after diagnosis.

Stephen’s consultant told him that he could undergo surgery to remove the tumour, the size of a 50p coin, but it could not cure him. This is because glioblastoma tumours spread tendrils throughout surrounding tissue, which are nearly impossible to spot until they form new tumours, and can never be fully removed from the brain.

Stephen says telling his family about the diagnosis was incredibly difficult. ‘Kate, especially, was in pieces, as her father had died from a brain tumour when she was just three,’ he adds. ‘Telling our girls the news was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’

Stephen underwent surgery in December 2021 and has since had radiotherapy and chemotherapy to keep the cancer under control.

‘What’s made me really angry is how the prognosis for glioblastoma and brain tumours in general don’t seem to have changed in decades – such little funding has been invested into researching it.

‘It’s the biggest cancer killer for under-40s, yet just one per cent of the total national spend on cancer research has gone into brain tumours in the past five years.

‘That’s why taking part in fundraisers such as Race For Life is so important. I might not have much longer, but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way for everyone.’

WHY ME? THAT’S CANCER, IT DOESN’T DISCRIMINATE

Former police officer Kevin Philliskirk, 66, is alive and well five years after being diagnosed with incurable bladder cancer – which had spread to his lungs – thanks to the ground-breaking immunotherapy drugs developed with funding from Cancer Research UK.

Now the grandfather from Sheffield plans to give something back by raising money when he takes part in the city’s Race For Life event on June 11.

‘I was on a trial for an immunotherapy drug called Tecentriq [also known as atezolizumab] for two years, and it really did the trick,’ says Kevin. ‘My cancer isn’t gone but the treatment has definitely kept it at bay. I feel like the treatment saved my life.’

Drugs such as Tecentriq work by harnessing the power of the body’s immune system to seek out and destroy cancerous cells. They have transformed treatment of numerous cancers previously regarded as a death sentence, such as the skin cancer malignant melanoma.

Kevin was on holiday in France in 2018 when he first noticed blood in his urine. He saw his GP who referred him for tests that revealed he had bladder cancer – which affects about 20,000 people every year in the UK, with men most likely to be victims.

The disease soon spread to his lungs, drastically reducing his chances of survival.

‘One of the first things I thought was, why me? I’d always been fit and healthy. But that’s cancer for you – it doesn’t discriminate.’

Kevin needed surgery to remove his bladder and create a permanent stoma – an opening on the abdomen to divert the flow of bodily waste into a bag.

‘I needed to make friends with it – so I call it Paloma,’ he quips. ‘Research into better treatments has given me the greatest gift – more time with my loved ones. But scientists need our support – success stories such as mine would not be possible without the work of scientists funded by Cancer Research UK, who have played a key part in the development of immunotherapy treatment.’

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