Blood Cancer Diagnosis didn’t stop Joanne entering an Ironman

Ordinary Women Being Extraordinary

Joanne Smith, 48, from Eastbourne East Sussex, is married, to Mark. She’s a mum of three children, Darien aged 21, Isabella, 11, and Oliver, eight. This year she was diagnosed with blood cancer, since then she’s completed Ride London, taken on a half Ironman and ran a marathon (the super-tough Beachy Head Marathon, with 4000ft of hills). In 2018 she’ll take on the Ironman. She only started cycling when she was 45.

‘I was born with a congenitally small and sensitive bladder, which meant exercise was impossible as I was always needing the loo. Then, three years ago, I was offered botox in the area which I now have twice a year, this was life-changing. I joined the David Lloyd and enjoyed spinning classes. It was here I heard someone talking about triathlon, it captured my imagination, and at 45 I bought the children and myself our first bikes – cross bikes so we could go off-road and on.

‘I also signed the kids up to the local triathlon club and the more the kids got involved in swimming, running and cycling, the more I wanted to. They are now better swimmers and runners than me but I can still out-cycle them. Mark has always run and training became a family thing.

‘I have tried to run in the past but always failed due to my knees hurting and injury. But this time with a new found enthusiasm I went out and did a mile, and thought again – maybe I can? As for swimming, I hadn’t done that either, especially not open water – the extent of my swimming was dangling my feet in the water or a splash with the kids. But, I still entered the Seaford triathlon. To my astonishment I won my age group, age 46. But best of all I loved it!

‘When I was 13 I had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and so it was no surprise when my knees started to cause me problems as I’d already had two rounds of knee surgery to repair tears.

‘In 2016 I struggled to run more than two miles due to my IT band so spent 2016 mainly cycling (my happy place) and after three months of focusing on strength and stretching in the gym decided to try running again, but within a month my knees started hurting so I requested an MRI scan. Out the blue one Friday I got a call to say I needed to see the consultant on Monday. The MRI not only confirmed that I had another tear and a cyst but more worryingly that I had a shadow on my right knee (possibly bone cancer). This was referred to the Stanmore Hospital who are still monitoring this via our local hospital with regular MRI’s but they feel it is clumping of my red cells. My very thorough consultant was still concerned and also sent me for blood tests and a referral to the blood department. One night I read my medical notes and saw that the reason was a query in my elevated platelets, I googled this and found out that meant a high risk of cancer.

‘I was then diagnosed with something called Essential Thrombocythemia a form of incurable blood cancer caused by the mutation of the ‘jak 2’ chromosone which means my platelets are elevated and need to be controlled. At the moment I’m fit and healthy and have my bloods taken every couple of months and a meeting with my blood consultant. Hopefully, with regular monitoring and being picked up early I can be treated as needed and live a long life. It could have been a lot worse.

‘But hearing the ‘C’ word does change your perspective and make you face your life head on. Life changes, and life is short. I’ve always worked hard and have been successful in business, but my children are young and I was reminded how important it was to spend time with them.

‘I’m lucky to be in a position to shape my working life and I’ve got a plan to work a little less by the time I reach 50. But I’m also embracing challenges and enjoying sport with my younger two.

‘After the diagnosis in May 17 I completed Ride London raising money for Blood Cancer, Bewl olympic triathlon, Virtruvian Half Ironman and then Beachy Head Marathon. My knees were still very bad, but I did all of these events with minimal run training, and just sheer bloody-mindedness and endurance on my side.

‘The Virturvian half ironman, (held in September 2017) which I only entered six weeks before race date took me out of my comfort zone. I barely did any running due to knee pain and was having regular treatments including acupuncture. I was told to rest in the two weeks before the race but resting made the pain worse and started to affect my cycling. Added to that, a family holiday in August and run training just didn’t get off the ground.

‘On the day the swim was crowded with lots of kicking and I got cold towards the end but was fine; the bike, my strength, was slower and harder than I had anticipated, with hills and wind. On the run (the part that could have broken me), I had my knees strapped, the wind had picked up even more and was howling across the open dam and the rain pelted down. I decided I would adopt a walk-run strategy that started three minutes running, one minute walking, and then would go down to 2:1, 1:1 then walk. But I kept it going at 3:1 and was delighted to run the half marathon in 2.20. And amazingly experienced no pain during the race, except for my IT band at mile 11.

‘I absolutely loved the day, I had the endurance and felt good all the way through. Rather than my hope that doing this would get long distance tri out of my system it did the opposite and triggered a thought, if I can cope with half ironman, then I can also cope with the full distance, and so a few weeks later, I signed up.

‘With the ironman booked and knowing I may have to walk the run leg, one day whilst out walking the dogs on the glorious South Downs, I started to think about the Beachy Head Marathon (an off road marathon with 4000 ft of elevation that takes in the seven sisters (cliffs) at the end) and a thought came into my head: ‘I could do this at the worst I can walk 26 miles’. So I went home and entered, just three weeks before the race date, when most people start to taper. One week later I did my longest walk, a half marathon in just over three hours in my new trail shoes and ended up with dreadful blisters – bringing my one day training to an abrupt halt.

‘I completed the race in 5 hours  37 on a combination of jogging and fast walking and loved every minute of the day although my IT band reared it’s ugly head at mile 11. I loved running the last three miles with my daughter, she kept me going when all I wanted to do was stop.

‘My dad always told me I could do anything and he is right anything is possible. He taught me to be independent, and never fear trying – and failing. I’m really excited about doing the IronMan next year, although worried about my knees which are giving me grief again, and it’s on my tick-list to do before 50 and I want the tattoo (even though I am afraid of needles).

‘I plan to base most of my training on the bike and will do four to five 100 mile plus bike rides, Long fast paced walks but minimal running. I’ve already started doing the iron distance swim of 3.8K. I plan to do that every two months and see if I’m improving. I’m philosophical about it all I have no idea what the future holds for me with my illness and knees but whilst I can I will do everything I want to do and by an inspiration to my children and live life to the full.’


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