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Last year this Co Down woman could barely stand up after chemo... now she's determined to compete in Titanic Runher

Having fought and beaten breast cancer, a Bangor mother-of-two took up running in her spare time. Now, having been diagnosed with an incurable form of the disease, Diane McCaughan is determined to cross the finishing line at Titanic Runher. Stephanie Bell reports.

Published 11/09/2015

Battling on: Diane McCaughan from North Down who is taking part in next month’s Runher
Battling on: Diane McCaughan from North Down who is taking part in next month’s Runher
Family bond: Diane with her husband Sherrard and children Ben and Emma
Battling on: Diane McCaughan from North Down who is taking part in next month’s Runher
Great support: Diane and husband Sherrard

She was too ill to take part herself last year, but Diane McCaughan was determined to play some part in the very first Belfast Telegraph Titanic Runher last year, and bravely left her sick bed to cheer the other girls on from the sidelines.

As a Runher veteran she was secretly gutted not to be among the 1,500 women running the new Titanic course, but her very presence proved an inspiration to everyone involved in the event.

The fact that the Bangor mum-of-two will be lining up at the starting line this year is astonishing, given what she has come through in the past year - yet those who know her are not in the least surprised.

Diagnosed last May with incurable cancer, she has coped by facing it head on with a remarkably positive attitude and an inspiring sense of humour.

She is determined to make the most of every day she has been given and, even though her body has taken a battering from a gruelling course of chemotherapy, there was no holding her back from doing what she loves most - running.

And, no one knows how fierce her will is better than her husband, Sherrard, who made her promise to stop running during her chemotherapy treatment through fear she would do herself more harm.

But, no sooner had her treatment finished in November of last year than she had her running shoes back on in December, gradually working herself back to fitness.

Earlier this year, Diane fulfilled a promise she made to herself while in hospital last summer to take part in this year's Belfast Telegraph Coastal Runher.

Even though she admits that her body is still getting back to normal after the rigours of chemo, she is off to Newcastle-upon-Tyne this weekend to join runners from all over the UK for the 13-mile annual Great Northern Run.

And October 4 will see her thrilled to be running this time, instead of looking on, as the Titanic Runher gets under way.

She says: "I really wanted to do the Titanic Runher last year, especially as it was the first year it was held at the Titanic Quarter, so I'm really looking forward to this year's race.

"It's good for me as there won't be too many hills and hopefully I will get a half decent time.

"It is just wonderful to be taking part as there is such a great atmosphere, and the fact that it is just for women makes Runher that wee bit different and special.

"Last year I did go down to support the other runners and it was great. I was really chuffed to be asked to present the prizes to the winners.

"It is the first time I stood on a podium and I probably never will again unless no one else enters the race."

Diane, who is mum to Ben (15) and Emma (13), admitted that she was so weak that she struggled to stand on the sidelines last year, and it is a reflection of her strength of spirit that she insisted on being there.

She says: "It was hard just going down to give my support. I was so knackered and even standing was hard. It made me set myself a challenge there and then to make sure I was fit enough to do the Coastal Runher this year and the Titanic."

Diane's strength in facing her diagnosis head on is humbling.

It is the second time she has battled cancer. Eight years ago she came through breast cancer and had passed the crucial all-clear five-year milestone only to be dealt the cruellest of blows last May when she was told the cancer had spread, and this time it couldn't be cured. She was blind-sided by the news.

At the time she said: "A scan showed cancer in the liver; it had come back.

"I went into shock. I just sat there, numb and trembling, hot and cold at the same time. It's hard to explain ..."

Further tests found cancerous cells in the lungs, lymph glands and sternum. Diane started an aggressive round of chemotherapy in the hope of shrinking the tumours and, thankfully to date, it appears to have worked.

Her first battle with cancer began when she found a lump in her breast in January 2006, aged 36. Tests revealed she had a tumour two inches long in her breast. She underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy.

Her mum Vivienne had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year-and-a-half before and, tragically within a year was diagnosed with secondary tumours in her spine and passed away aged 66.

Diane's was stage two cancer and after her treatment and surgery she was given the all-clear.

It was two years after her surgery that she started to run to lose weight and adapt a healthier lifestyle.

She soon became hooked and has been a regular at the Runher events for the past six years. Last year's race was the first she missed because of her new diagnosis.

Now living with cancer which she knows this time it will never go away, she is still incredibly positive and focused on her future.

She says: "The way I look at it you have two choices - you can sit there and feel sorry for yourself or you can get up and get on with it. I have been given this time and I might as well live it.

"Although my cancer is deemed incurable, it's manageable; not terminal. You can't get rid of it but you can live with it. And there's always new research into it. The oncologist refers to it as a life-limiting condition. Basically my breast cancer cells have migrated to my liver and so on.

"They thought they'd got it all eight years ago but cancer is a sneaky disease. But I do think miracles can happen. It's not beyond the realms of possibility. I just have a belief - not a religious one, as such. I just have a positive approach to it. People have overcome this before. I'm a firm believer in the mind-body connection."

This time the experience had made her re-evaluate what she wants out of life and, while she is still very much recovering from the effects of chemo, she is thinking about how she can use what she has been through to help others by training for a new career as a nutritionist.

This time last year she had just passed her exams to qualify as a beauty therapist and hoped to open her own beauty salon.

All that has changed now as Diane focuses on helping her body to cope with the harsh side-effects of chemo and find its own natural way to keep the cancer inside her at bay.

"I am now 10 months out from finishing the chemo and my hair is growing back and I am starting to look a bit more like myself again," she says.

"I get an injection every three months and take a tablet every day to help starve my body of oestrogen which the cancer feeds on. I also get a scan every three months which has shown the cancer has shrunk which is great.

"The chemo wiped me out more than I would have thought, and I am now just taking time for myself to let my body get back to normal and heal so for the next year. It is 'project me' and trying to get myself on my feet again.

"Life has pushed me in a different direction because of the diagnosis. I was sent a bit of a curve ball and now instead of beauty I am interested in nutrition and I would like to go back to study and do something along those lines.

"It is all due to the joy of the internet. From what I have read online - although there is no scientific proof - a more vegetarian and vegan lifestyle supports your body better in recovering from cancer.

"I don't know if there is any truth in it, but it did resonate with me and I do lapse sometimes - usually because no one else in the house wants to eat it. But mostly I am eating whole plant foods rather than processed food and I do feel a whole lot better for it.

"I would like to be able to help other people but I think I need to live it first before I go out and tell others about it. I think it carries more weight to be able to say 'I've done this' and 'this is where it has brought me'.

"I would like to help people like me who have cancer and I think there is a lot to be said for looking after your body physically and mentally."

As well as following a healthy diet, Diane has enjoyed getting out into the fresh air and running again.

Even after her diagnosis last year and when she started chemo she continued to run, but it proved just too much for her body to cope with and she had to be hospitalised.

That's when husband Sherrard made her promise not to run again until her treatment was finished.

November 18 was her last dose of chemo and in December she started to train again doing park runs and gradually building up her fitness levels.

"It does take me longer to recover now from a run," she says. "The last couple of months I have been getting my miles up and I ran 13 miles last week just to prove to myself that I could do it - but it took me two to three days to recover.

"I do find it frustrating that I can't do what I was able to do before.

"I think running is strangely addictive. It can be hard and sometimes I hate doing it, but that is the beauty of it - the buzz you get at the end of it because it was a challenge and you had to push yourself. It means more than doing something that comes easy."

Having cancer and knowing it will not go away has not stopped this amazing mum from carrying on with life and living it to the full.

It is thanks to Diane's positive attitude that her two children Ben and Emma have coped well, and life for them also carries on pretty much as normal.

"They are absolutely fine. For the most part they don't think a lot about it. They have coped pretty well and because I am getting on with it they are too," she says.

"When I was diagnosed last year I didn't think I had a future ahead of me and now I see a future - however long it is, I don't know, but I don't think anyone does.

"There are times it hits me and like any mum I don't like the idea of leaving my kids on their own but I have to look ahead and keep positive."

Week six: Our nutritionist Majella Farrell on vitamins

There are 13 known vitamins which are categorised as either fat-soluble (A, D, E and K) or water-soluble (the B vitamins and vitamin C).

The difference or distinction between fat-soluble and water soluble vitamins is important because the body stores fat soluble vitamins for fairly long periods whereas the water-soluble vitamins remain in the body for a very short time and need to be replenished often.

There are only two of these vitamins that the body can produce itself.

Vitamin D: (Cholecalciferol) produced in the skin when the skin is exposed to sunlight and is important for maintaining healthy bones and immune system. Food rich in this vitamin includes tuna, sardines canned in oil, milk or yogurt (vitamin fortified), egg yolks and cheese.

Vitamin K: essential for normal clotting of the blood. The body can make it in the intestines. The best foods for Vitamin K are dark green leafy vegetables and also the skins of fruit and vegetables.

Vitamin A: (Retinol). Healthy vision, eyes, skin and growth - found in cod liver oil, butter, cream, cheese, eggs, oily fish.

Vitamin B1: (Thiamin) and Vitamin B2: (Riboflavin). Healthy brain, skin and nerves and to help release energy from carbohydrate foods. Foods rich in this nutrient include egg yolks, whole pork, bacon, nuts, dairy produce and fortified cereals, offal Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid), Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine), Vitamin B7 (Biotin), Vitamin B9-Folate (Folic Acid), Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin).

Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid): Essential for breakdown and use of protein in the diet; hair, skin, nails and metabolism of fats, protein and carbohydrates, proper development of babies and blood cells, nerves, energy and immune system, connective tissue, bones, teeth.

Find this in meat, fish, fortified breakfast cereals, grain, peanuts and lentils, whole grains, vegetables, brewers yeast, offal, cheese, soybeans, green leafy vegetables, nuts and pulses.

Vitamin E (Tocopherols): Fractures and wounds and protecting cell walls, skin and against heart disease. Found in nuts and avocados.

Trainer Melissa Eccles explains how to do the Swiss ball side crunch

Muscles targeted: Obliques.

This exercise strengthens your obliques/side core muscles to help prevent excessive twisting when you run.

Sets: two sets of 10 (per side).

Starting position: Kneel on the floor with the wall on your left side and the Swiss ball on your right. Lie on the exercise ball with your right side by placing your right hip, waist and shoulder against the ball. You’ll know you have the right position when the ball supports the curve of your side.

Place your feet on the ground with your soles pressed against the wall, the leg that’s underneath (right) should be bent out in front at 90 degrees and the leg that’s on top (left) should be bent at 90 degrees with your foot behind. Make sure you have a straight line from hip to knee of the leg that’s on top.

Place your hands behind your head with your elbows pointing out either side.

Movement: As you exhale, raise your side off the ball, flexing at the waist. Note that your hip stays on the ball at all times. Be careful not to lean forward or back as you move. With your hip anchored, think about peeling your side of the ball to come up.

Don’t let your elbows come forward as you come up, aim your elbow towards that wall as you come up, focusing all of the tension on your side to get you up. Hold for a second at the top, inhale, and slowly lower your side back down on the ball.

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