Lifestyle25 Nov 2023

Remarkable Runners: Siobhan Coleman


Remarkable runner Siobhan Coleman

As part of @PBPersonalBest’s Remarkable Runners series, we introduce Siobhan Coleman, a 21-time Scottish junior champion, whose life took a challenging turn when she faced a cervical cancer diagnosis and life-changing surgery.

In this interview, Siobhan shares her journey of resilience and determination to continue running in the face of adversity. She hopes to raise awareness and encourage others to pursue their passions post-illness.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Sport, especially running, has always played a big part in our family. My Dad was a great club runner (2:30 for a marathon back in the 1980s) and I’ve always been a runner. I’m a 21-time Scottish junior champion – I think my last title was the U20 road in 2009 – over a variety of distances and terrains.

In mid-2009, I began to feel rubbish. I was at university, working part-time, trying to run, trying to have a life, and feeling tired all the time. Of course, you're bound to be tired but I didn’t understand why I couldn't run properly anymore.

Things came to head in 2018 when I collapsed out running. That set off alarm bells so I went to the doctor and multiple other people for advice. I had lots of hospital respiratory and exercise tests; I knew going into the tests that I’d have to collapse to prove how bad it was. However, the doctors responded, “Oh! I don't know what to do about this. All your numbers are fine. Better not exercise so hard.”

Things got worse. I couldn't run below a six-minute mile without gasping and wheezing, even collapsing, unable to breathe. Eventually, I actually collapsed during a race. This needed to be addressed: I was collapsing in races I used to win.

And then came lockdown, so you couldn't see anybody. I was unable to sleep from the all-consuming pain in my back, abdomen and ribs. Eventually, in the spring and summer of 2021, I started having unusual bleeds in between my periods. When the bleeding went off the charts, I was sent to hospital. After three years of being told there was nothing wrong with me, the doctors finally agreed I was very unwell.

“What do you think is wrong with me?” I asked.

“We think you've got cancer,” they replied. Surely, I thought, I can't have cancer. I'm self-employed and in the middle of buying a house. Not only did I have to deal with my cancer diagnosis, I had to pull out of the house sale. It was extremely traumatic.

During that period, did you get any support from your fellow runners or was it mostly from your family and friends?

I got my official stage three cervical cancer diagnosis in July 2021 although I kept it to myself initially. I didn’t tell anybody because I needed to protect my business. I'm a one-woman band; I must keep working until I can't work anymore. That was the headspace I was in. But it went out of the door pretty quickly at the end of August 2021: I had a 90-minute haemorrhage which almost killed me before I’d even had any treatment. I was desperately ill, hospitalised, in need of blood transfusions. At that point, I had to close my business. For the first part of my treatment, I wouldn't say there wasn't support, it's more that I wasn't looking for it. I wanted to distract my mind from what was happening.

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During this traumatic time, what happened with your running?

I went through the chemo followed by three sessions of brachytherapy. I wasn’t given a great deal of advice so I took the decision to run for my sanity, to normalise my life. If women who have given birth can run after 6–12 weeks, so could I. If it works, great. If not, that's okay.

In November 2021, my initial chemo, radio and brachy finished and I started doing a one-minute walk. At the end of December, I was managing a one-minute jog. I built this up to run one minute on, one minute off. I was absolutely delighted to complete a 5k parkrun (21:18) in the middle of April 2022 – pretty good going for someone who had almost died eight months earlier!

Unfortunately, around the time of that parkrun, I wasn't feeling so good. I went for a biopsy and was told my tumour was still there, bigger than they had originally reckoned. I’d need surgery to save my life. I thought this meant something like a radical hysterectomy, but no, it meant a total pelvic exenteration (TPE). I was like, “No, I'm not having that,” and left the appointment.

I soon realised how stark the options were: have the surgery and probably die; don’t have the surgery and die. They didn’t seem much like options. Even if the surgery was successful, the medics reckoned there was potential risk of paralysis which, in my eyes, meant not having life.

Luckily, my eyes were opened to the worldwide online community. I was already on a Facebook group for cervical cancer so I wrote a post asking people if they’d had the intended surgery or knew anyone who had. During the next 12–18 hours, my phone kept flashing like the Blackpool Illuminations. People from Australia, America, Wales, others in Scotland, reached out to me. They all said the same: Do the surgery. Don't be a statistic. It's going to change your life. I decided to go ahead.

I found an athlete-specific ostomy support group (for anyone with either one or two stomas). It was absolutely incredible! People were completing triathlons, cycling, running, hiking, doing yoga and Pilates – basically, everything I’d been told I’d never be able to do.

Three weeks later, in June 2022, I had nine organs removed and two stomas fitted. The surgery and recovery were the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. But again, within 12 weeks, I thought, If you’d had a Caesarean, you'd be running by now. Why not give it a go? By the end of September I was able to do a 30-second run followed by a one-minute walk. At the end of January I did a cross country race, then in February I competed at the Scottish Cross Country Championships over 10km. I got halfway around. I hadn’t collapsed. I felt fine, so kept going.

From then on, loads of people in the running community had heard I’d been quite unwell (a bit of an understatement!) They couldn’t believe what I was doing. And yet, I was only being me. I'd run since I was nine. Why stop now? If I’m able, I'll carry on. Nevertheless, once you've had cancer treatment, you continue having bad days that come out the blue, when you're desperately tired and unable to get out of bed. I sleep all day and that's no problem. It's probably making me a better runner as I'm taking a bit more rest than previously.

Do you feel like running is a source of strength for you both physically and emotionally?

Definitely. I think running gives you that headspace to get away from everybody. I do struggle with other people not coping with me. Even when they’re genuinely well-intended, well-meaning, and say things like, “I couldn't do what you've done, you're amazing.” I tell them, “No, I'm not. I'm just a normal person.”

I used running to escape all that and because I had been in such a lot of pain. I’ve always worn a stress patch because, although I didn’t always realise it, my body was under duress. As I'm no longer suffering with any of that, it’s fantastic. I want to run more because it’s so much more enjoyable. To go out for a run, even on a difficult day, is better than being in all that pain and not understanding why. When I think I'm having a bad day, I look forward to the next month. Now I’m trying to run two 10km races – this time last year, I was running for a mere 30 seconds – which massively encourages me to keep going and see what other people in the stoma community are achieving. There’s a huge misconception that if you've got a stoma, you're probably old. The reality is so many active young people have stomas, too.

You speak there about misconceptions. Is that what motivated you to get the awareness out there by sharing your journey?

I don’t want to be known as the girl who runs after cancer, because I used to run before. I'm being me and there's no reason why you can't be you. I totally appreciate that everyone's journey is vastly different; it’s also relative. Their TPE is different, depending on where their cancer started, where it has spread, what their previous treatment was.

I was extremely fit and active but dying and didn't know it. I wondered what I could manage when fit, active and not dying. For me, to go back and race a 10km seemed normal. If you weren’t into that distance before, I don't expect everyone to run a 10km. Nevertheless, there's no reason why you shouldn’t at least get involved in what you enjoy. I love seeing someone doing really well, whether it's fishing, boxing, cycling or running. I think, Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing, wonderful! You couldn’t get out of bed six months ago.

It's all about encouraging others, not only within the stoma community but in the athletics and cancer communities as well. I'm here for those people right now which is especially nice since they were there for me. If people hadn't reached out to me last June, I would be dead because I probably would have chosen not to have surgery. There are those with cervical cancer who aren’t offered surgery; I feel privileged to have been offered it and glad to have all those messages telling me to go ahead. I want to show other people that it’s possible to do all sorts of things after a cancer diagnosis.

Is there any specific advice that you'd give for people trying to pursue their running post cancer or illness?

If your doctors don't have a medical reason why you can't do something, why not at least try? If you don't try, you won’t know. As I mentioned, that first 30 seconds on, one minute off made me feel really sick. I thought, Maybe I shouldn't have done that.

But I wanted to see how I felt over the rest of the week. Literally two days later, I felt fine. I built on this and suddenly I was running four miles. I didn't feel any different from how I did after the initial part of my treatment. The only difference is that I wear support pants to keep everything together. I run and you wouldn't know. It's great.

Do you have any future goals or aspirations?

It would be awesome to run 18 minutes for 5km by the end of the year. I won’t say it's definitely going to happen as I'm running out of time to find a 5km to do. Even if it means going down to the local park near Christmas time, I'd quite like to try to break 18 minutes. If there’s anyone out there who wants to help pace me reach sub-18 … I’d really appreciate it.

Next year, I’d like to do a marathon. I’d spoken to my team who had said to give it two years post-surgery. That’s fine as it’s given me time to get fit enough to handle marathon training. I’ve connected with an amazing girl in the ostomy community. She’s run a 2:55 or a 2:57 marathon. Wow! I thought, ‘she's running sub three! If she can do that with an ileostomy, I need to speak to her!’

So I reached out for some ideas about training and what to eat for someone with an ostomy. She sent me her marathon training plan – it was unbelievable! I'm so grateful to the number of people who have reached out and given me support. I just want to give something similar back.

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