Teacher Nicky Lopez shares how she runs marathons, supports the younger generation through sport, is a business owner and does it all whilst undergoing intensive chemotherapy.
Nicky Lopez, 42, from in Liverpool is a foreign languages teacher. Six years ago she was diagnosed with non- Hodgkin lymphoma, which is an uncommon cancer that develops in the lymphatic system – a network of vessels and glands spread throughout the body.
Nicky claims that her decision to pick up a pair of running shoes and start training has saved her life in more ways than one: “It’s the lack of control that’s hard to deal with. You lose control of your body and you have to give your body over to drugs. People say I’m so brave having treatment – I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I’m not offered treatment every week with a yes or no option.
“When I’m running I’m constantly making a choice over my own body. I’m taking back control over my body.”
Nicky has trained tirelessly to become a great runner and “not the girl with cancer” but she said she had not previously considered running as she spent more time in high heels than trainers: “I was British Airways (BA) cabin crew before I was a teacher. I had never picked up a pair of running shoes before. As cabin crew I lived in high heels.”
“Someone suggested I do the Race for Life and it was awful for me. For some reason after that I thought I’d sign up for the Great North Run. I did my first half marathon during chemo, despite being repeatedly advised not to continue running.”
Race for Life is a series of fundraising events for women only and is organised by British charity Cancer Research UK. The events involve running, jogging or walking a five kilometre course for sponsorship.
Nicky now runs with her partner Marc who she met through an online running group which she joined for support: “I joined the Running the World Facebook Group and got on well with the admin guy who was running it. We eventually met and started a relationship. We ran the Great North Run and then signed up for the 2013 London Marathon. I completed that marathon with Marc, three days after having had chemo, and it was amazing – we ran for Macmillan Cancer Support.”
Nicky and Marc decided to sign up for the next year too but Nicky’s 2014 London Marathon victory was a struggle from the moment her training began: “That year my health took a dramatic turn for the worst. I had to take seven months off work, I lost most of my teeth and had infection after infection, but I hobbled through the training and thought if I have to walk it all the way I will.
“To add to it a few days before the marathon Marc’s mum died. The initial thought was that the universe was telling us not to do it. We called Macmillan and said we wouldn’t be able to run, but 24 hours beforehand Marc turned to me and said ‘You want to do it don’t you?’ and I said ‘Yes.’”
Nicky and Marc completed the 2014 London Marathon in aid of the charity Macmillan Cancer Support, but at that time did not plan to re-enter for the following year.
However, things began to look up for Nicky’s health and the couple had a change of heart when applications for the 2015 London Marathon opened: “Things picked up the following year because the intensive chemo I was having I suddenly responded to.
“We entered a ballot for the 2015 London Marathon, not really expecting to get places, but we both did. It was an incredible day and celebration. The amount of support we received was incredible and we wanted to run it to say thank you for all the support we had. It was something of a victory for us in so many ways.”
Running for Macmillan Cancer Support
Nicky and Marc decided to run for Macmillan Cancer Support because of the care she had received from the charity throughout her treatment: “Macmillan were incredible support for me as sometimes I’d go to appointments and I’d only hear the one bad thing instead of all the good things. Macmillan were the first people I’d talk to. They did everything they possibly could to help.
She applauded Macmillan for its unwavering efforts to support cancer suffers in all aspects of treatment and recovery: “It’s not just about finding a cure, or other treatments, it’s about showing you what you can still do whilst suffering with cancer.
“Macmillan have supported me in choosing to run and said if I wanted to run the London Marathon then they would support me all the way. Running has saved my life in more ways than one. It’s the physical and motivational side of it and the feeling of accomplishment,” she said.
Nicky also attributes some of her success to the support she has received from online communities: “The virtual support has been phenomenal through Run Mummy Run and Running the World in particular. When you’re running they know you and come and say hi.”
Running with cancer
In addition to three London Marathons under her belt Nicky has also completed the Great Manchester Run, the Great North Run, the Wirral 10k and the Santa Dash in Liverpool.
Nicky trains and runs during chemotherapy which is a type of cancer treatment, with medicine used to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy works through killing the cancer cells by damaging them, so they cannot continue to reproduce and spread.
However, chemotherapy has several side effects which Nicky is all too familiar with, and running a marathon during treatment comes with a whole host of issues: “I had trouble with balance, my sight was compromised and I’m deaf in one ear. The soles of your feet become numb, so you can’t tell when you have blisters or cuts so I have to check regularly instead of getting home and realising my feet are shredded. Chemo also causes diarrhea and weight gain from steroids.
“It is dehumanising for women as all your feminine qualities go – your hair, nails, you gain weight, etc. Running is empowering as people don’t care if you look feminine when you’re running. They care that you look strong. The way you look during chemo can be just as debilitating as the pain. Women are more empathetic to this as they know they look how you used to.”
The modest and humble Nicky added: “I’m not heroic – I moan a lot. I’m not a super inspirational angel, walking around with Bambi at her feet, but I have a very supportive partner and daughter who help me get through.”
Nicky described the moment she finished the Great North Half Run in under two hours and moved into the realms of being a strong runner and athlete: “I later did a sub two-hour Great North Half Run and it was then that I became a runner and not a girl with cancer.
“Before it was ‘Isn’t it great that she’s doing it with cancer’, but then it was great because I’m a really good runner.”
Supporting the younger generation and running a business
Not forgetting to give back Nicky has started a running club at her school for “reluctant runners” to encourage the younger generation to get involved in sport and learn about the disciplines, dedication and confidence that comes with it in addition to the health benefits.
She said: “It’s for kids who have had a bad experience of sport. Whether they are shy, bullied or lack confidence in sport. Everyone helps each other so no man gets left behind.”
Nicky explained that through sharing her passion for running with her students and wider she wants to give others hope, whether they are cancer suffers themselves or are careering for loved ones: “My students might have a family member diagnosed with cancer and if they think ‘Well, Miss Lopez was okay’ or if I run past someone in the crowd who has recently had a family member diagnosed then I could give them some hope that it’s going to be okay and that people with cancer can still get on.”
Nicky also runs a successful jewellery making business, with pieces designed to give runners hope and support: “It’s specifically for runners with inspirational quotes included.”
Nicky finishes chemo on December 10th after six years of treatment and has plans for more training and running: “Marc has taught me to ease up on myself. I used to get angry with myself, but now I just look at how far I’ve come and how well I’m doing. He’s taught me to be nicer to myself.”
Nicky and Marc are due to marry next year and aspire to run in the 2016 New York Marathon. You can follow her progress via the Facebook group Running The World.