It is an impressive feat to run a half marathon, and even more so when it’s to raise money for a charity that has saved your life and given you hope for a future you could never imagine. This is the case for 25-year-old Claire Woolger, who is running the 2017 Vitality Bath Half Marathon to raise money for Teenage Cancer Trust after herself being diagnosed with cancer at 14 years old. Not knowing whether she would ever lead a normal life, let alone survive, Claire experienced first-hand the tremendous work that Teenage Cancer Trust does in helping teenagers with cancer to be normal teens and cope with the disease.
Now clear of cancer, and teaching English and languages at Hayesfield Girls’ School in Bath, Claire is an amazing example of someone who is using her experience to help others. And she certainly doesn’t do things by halves, as a few weeks after running the award-winning Vitality Bath Half on 12th March 2017, Claire will be running the Virgin Money London Marathon, again to raise money and awareness for Teenage Cancer Trust.
“I would have never imagined, going through treatment, that I could run a marathon – or any race for that matter – 11 years down the line,” Claire admits. “I wish I could go back and tell myself that in the darkest moments of treatment – in the very, very rare moments where chemotherapy made me so poorly and weak. Because I would have had a little smidgen of hope that people survive and go on to do things they never imagined doing; in other words, that I would be able to absolutely live life to the full.”
Claire was diagnosed at 14 with a rare and very aggressive cancer, embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, that only affects one in a million people. By the time the cancer was caught, it had spread to her right lung and reached Stage 4 in her neck, meaning she required very intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Claire went through chemotherapy for a year, and had radiotherapy to her face, neck and chest every day for a month. “The potential side effects of the treatments, both short and long term, are horrendous. It was the hardest thing to press ‘start’ on the drip machine knowing that I was pumping all that rubbish into my body which, while saving me, could significantly limit what I was able to do in the future. It obviously wasn’t a choice I had though”, she says.
At the time of diagnosis, the only way Claire could cope with the cancer and chemotherapy was to carry on as normal, often meaning that she was in school even when weak and with dangerously low levels of immunity due to the treatment. She found herself focusing on school work and exams, which gave her some sort of reassurance and the immediate normality in life she craved.
Whilst realising how lucky she was that the chemo and radiotherapy were working, one of the hardest things for Claire as a teenage cancer patient was wondering whether she would ever be able to lead a normal life and do the ‘normal’ things teenagers expect to do in their lifetimes. She had a list of milestones she wondered if she would reach: sitting exams, passing her driving test, going to university, getting a job, etc.
A pivotal moment came when a Teenage Cancer Trust representative was asked to go into Claire’s school to give a talk to the whole of her year group about teenagers with cancer. He put into words something Claire hadn’t been able to express to her peers because she hadn’t yet grasped it herself: a teenager with cancer is absolutely still a normal teenager and it’s ok to have normal aspirations.
“Teenage Cancer Trust changed the way I was seen from ‘that cancer girl’ and the support I received was tremendous,” remembers Claire. “The charity made school a place I went to in order to escape, and gave me a support network of friends and teachers who understood. This made the whole experience much more bearable. As a teacher now, I never underestimate the role a school can have in giving students going through all kinds of problems an escape and a haven of normality.”
A couple of years post-treatment Claire went to one of the Find Your Sense of Tumour conferences that Teenage Cancer Trust runs, and realised how the charity unites teenagers going through similar experiences. “I was treated at the Royal Marsden Hospital and at the time they didn’t have a Teenager and Young Adult unit – I was on the children’s ward. I can imagine the difference a teenage ward makes as a result of the funding that goes into the charity! I think the easiest way to describe what makes this charity so special is that it lets teenagers be teenagers and gives those experiences that, due to cancer, they could have been deprived of.”
Teenage Cancer Trust now operates 28 units in NHS hospitals across the UK, like the one at Bristol Haemotology and Oncology Centre. With bright colours, big sofas, the latest movies, friends welcome 24/7, communal kitchens and specialist nurses who really know what teenagers care about, these units are world-leading in their facilities and care. However, half of young cancer patients are not treated in these units and receive treatment in hospitals where there is no specialist treatment for young people. It can be a deeply isolating experience.
The ambition of Teenage Cancer Trust is to reach every young person with cancer, by expanding their team of expert nurses to work in local hospitals and patients’ homes so that young people can receive the expert treatment they need, no matter where they live. With support from fundraisers like Claire, they can fulfil this ambition and make sure every young person with cancer gets the care they deserve.
Anyone wishing to join #TeamTeenageCancer and help transform young people’s lives should go to http://bathhalf.co.uk/charity/teenage-cancer-trust/. Charity places cost just £30 and they ask that runners raise a minimum of £300. In return, runners will receive an exclusive charity running top, free access to their online training zone, fundraising help and a fantastic race day experience with plenty of support.
The Vitality Bath Half Marathon is one of the top three single day charity fundraising events in the UK, raising over £2.2 million at the 2016 race alone. The award-winning event supports over 130 different charities and Teenage Cancer Trust is a Diamond Bond charity. For runners like Claire, the race offers a superb opportunity to raise funds for a cause close to the heart.
It is nothing short of astonishing that Claire is planning to run the 13.1 miles of the Vitality Bath Half next spring, given that when she first put on running shoes she couldn’t run for longer than half a minute due to a lack of oxygen. Post treatment and at university she was able to run for longer, and finally in 2015 Claire entered the Vitality Bath Half Marathon in order to combine her running with giving something back to Teenage Cancer Trust.
“It was one of the most amazing days – I felt like a hero with the crowds cheering, and the atmosphere was phenomenal!” recalls Claire. “I raised £1,025 for Teenage Cancer Trust and the London Marathon became a more concrete ambition, whilst reassuring my mum who was worried I would ruin my knees! I ran the Bath Half again in 2016 and I again loved it, although on mile 12 I did think ‘I’m never, ever doing this again – I can’t go any further and must sit down immediately’. I finished and a few days later decided to enter both the 2017 Vitality Bath Half and the London Marathon – clearly a logical progression from my mile 12 mindset!”
Claire is now trying to run three times a week, along with cross training and occasionally swimming. “With all the training for London, I aim to run the Bath Half in two hours – although I’d secretly prefer it if it was under!” she reveals. All the while raising money for Teenage Cancer Trust, Claire is truly inspirational and living proof to any teenager with cancer that there is hope – and potential for an extremely bright future ahead.
As Claire herself says, “If I can go some way to giving a teenager or family or anyone going through cancer some hope, then I will have absolutely done what I am setting out to do with my running.”
Claire’s fundraising page is https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Claire-Woolger.
General public entries have sold out for the 2017 Vitality Bath Half Marathon but the organisers have confirmed that charity places are still available.
Cancer Research UK is the Lead Charity for 2017, with Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens the official Family Fun Run Charity and Dorothy House Hospice Care the official Local Charity
Register for the 2017 Vitality Bath Half Marathon
Go to www.bathhalf.co.uk/charities for further details about running for charity, like the Facebook page www.facebook.com/BathHalfMarathon and follow @bathhalf #bathhalf on Twitter to keep up to date with all the latest news about the Vitality Bath Half Marathon.