Defying all odds

The cancer patient who ran the New York Marathon

A keen runner from North London, Jonathan Barr has eight marathons under his belt, and attributes the camaraderie in the sport as his driving force. And no more so than when he ran the New York Marathon. Twice. Once after surgery for testicular cancer and the other just weeks after finishing chemotherapy.

Jonathan’s cancer journey

Jonathan was diagnosed with testicular cancer in April 2014 and had an orchiectomy (an operation to remove his testicle). Then on his year anniversary of being diagnosed, he was found to have a tumour in a lymph node that required him to have four cycles of etoposide and cisplatin chemotherapy.

The chemotherapy hit Jonathan hard. Twice he was seriously neutropenic, which is a potentially life-threatening complication where your white blood cell count plummets, making you vulnerable to infection. Yet despite this, he never gave up running.

“I was running just before I started each chemo session. I used to run through Regents Park – four miles or so. By the end of my chemotherapy I was walking more than running but I still did the four miles. It just felt I had to do it,” explained Jonathan. “I wanted to get outside, and feel the sun and see the flowers. I was hooked up for six hours a day for the chemo so it was important to me to have that. In some ways it was crazy but it was amazing at the same time.”

The inspiration for the New York Marathon

Things got even tougher for Jonathan when his mother died of breast cancer just days before his last chemo cycle. And it’s the charities that helped his mother – Chai Cancer Care and North London Hospice – that Jonathan raises money for when he runs marathons. Raising further funds for these was a real incentive in him signing up to run the New York Marathon, which was being held just 10 weeks after he’d complete chemotherapy.

“The running was a great distraction and going into chemo, I was in my best physical shape for years because of it and I think it’s what got me through chemo too,” said Jonathan. “And the New York Marathon was a great focal point. It was ridiculously irrational that I thought I could do it but I had so many people wishing me on. And it was important to me not to do nothing after chemo, I had three months off work and I needed a focus.”

Could he get over the finish line?

Despite his optimism, Jonathan didn’t get medical approval for running the marathon as his doctor at LOC, Dr Simon Chowdhury, simply wasn’t sure he could do it. Jonathan had kept his friends and family updated on his treatment through social media and some were also sceptical about the challenge he was taking on.

“The thing about chemo is that people assume it’s all the same but it’s not always that bad. Not everyone can go running – some people are affected very badly and can’t walk or get out of bed – but it’s not the same for everybody. There may be some things you think you cannot do or might affect you, but you never know.”

Yet even he felt that he’d taken on too much on the eve of the marathon.

“Did I feel I could do it? No I didn’t actually think I could. It was the first race I had gone into thinking that. This was the most scary pre-night of any race I’ve done. It was the fear of the unknown. The chemo had affected my lung capacity so I didn’t know if I could keep going.”

The big day

Jonathan wore a vest for the marathon with the emblem: ‘Testicular cancer fighter’ that other runners responded to, giving Jonathan a much needed boost.

“I had so many people calling my name and urging me on. It was so emotional. My mother had died and I was thinking of the money I was raising for the charities that helped her and myself through cancer and the fact I was running it at all. I was happy and then sad, alternating between laughing and crying. Just being there and having gone through everything was so overwhelming.”

And there were points when Jonathan needed this camaraderie more than ever.

“At about 11 miles I suddenly thought ‘I can’t do this; I’m going to have to walk off the course’. That lasted for about a minute but then I just carried on. And every time there was a drinks station I talked to the volunteers and they were very kind to me even though they were total strangers.”

Looking back on his achievement

Jonathan completed the New York Marathon, running the 26.2-mile course in five hours and five minutes, and raised just under £12,000.

Right now he can’t believe he did it. But his philosophy is in no event can you not do something.

“Everybody has a different story but if you think you can try and do it, you do it. I have absolutely no idea how I managed to complete the marathon because physically I was very drained from the chemo but I was on autopilot. And I was just trying to do what I did before I had cancer.”

Advice for others

Jonathan calls testicular cancer the “silent cancer” because people still don’t know much about it and so men don’t realise the importance of checking themselves for anything abnormal. He urges other men to do this regularly so they can spot anything early on, which can dramatically improve the success of treatment.

Jonathan also urges other people with cancer to accept the wide range of support available at LOC and to also to offer it to others going through a similar experience.

“Going through chemotherapy is very humanising. We don’t all know the right things to say but just talking to someone, giving them a hug, it all helps. As much as it’s been very heart-breaking being through what I’ve been through, I have met some amazing people. Going through cancer makes you appreciate that so much more.”