Then 41-year-old Heather Hawkins received a devastating diagnosis: stage one ovarian cancer, in the form of a tumour of 18cm. Following the diagnosis, the office and accounts manager and (non-running) mother of two made a decision to be damned if she let cancer define her existence. With that, Heather catapulted herself into living a more adventurous, ambitious life – which, in the 10 years since, has seen her run 20 marathons and three ultra-marathons in some of the toughest terrain in the world, the culmination of which was the completion of the gruelling World Marathon Challenge (seven marathons in seven days on seven continents).
“From that very moment I received my diagnosis and heard those two words ‘ovarian cancer’ linked to my name in the one sentence, I found myself rerouted onto a devastating, new journey,” she tells us. “Nothing could have prepared me for this – how on earth do you face an 18cm tumour?”
Here, the runner and author of new book Adventurous Spirit tells Collective Hub exactly how she triumphed.
In times of darkness, what would you do in order to stay positive?
In those tough early days, I found I coped best by simply getting practical. By asking lots of questions, understanding the facts, not letting my imagination get the better of me. I sought to know all about the plan, the surgery and post-op treatment and how best I could play my role as part of the team.
This gave me something to focus on and an outlet for all my emotions, and it kept the potential fear inside me under control because it took away my sense of helplessness and gave me something to do.
Certainly, I had tears and moments where I felt vulnerable and broken, but I always managed to regroup before long and find my inner calm again.
What also helped was writing in my diary, doing a lot of positive self-talk, sharing with my family, and holding firmly to the belief that I could actually pull through this and maybe, just maybe, come out the other side even stronger. And the one that I never gave up on was planning for the future.
Tell us about that first marathon – what was it about that experience that made you want to achieve more?
Running my first marathon was definitely one of the longest, toughest physical, and mentally challenging experiences of my life. But despite this, and the fact that I hobbled like a pirate to catch the ferry home after the event, there’s no way I would have swapped those 4 hours 11 minutes for anything, because it took me to a whole new personal place. It gave me the chance to make a statement and finally shake myself free from being defined by cancer. It taught me that I could be defiant, perhaps even a little bit braver, that I could celebrate life in a new tough, physical way, and it opened up the door to the whole new world of long-distance running – a world that I’d always thought way beyond me before and surprisingly, I loved it.
What is it about running that gives you the sense you’re making the most of life?
Every race that I register for gives me another opportunity to celebrate being a survivor, to start training for a new goal and to become stronger.
I know I’m not running away from anything but towards a goal, something bigger than myself. Not because I’m frightened, but because I’m trying to be brave. I run so I can remember people and dedicate races to them and carry them with me. And to raise funds for cancer research and to encourage others.
What scares you most? How do you overcome your fears?
I would have to say fear of failure. What if I sign up for an event and it’s beyond me? Then what? What if my body lets me down? How embarrassed will I be? But I know I can’t let this hold me back; I need to prepare myself as best as I can, train diligently and remain positive and not let fear hold me back… I need to remind myself that the action of standing at the start line of a new challenge should be measured as success in itself and whatever happens after that starter’s gun goes off is simply the lesser part of that overall journey.
Why did you decide to document your journey with your book, Adventurous Spirit?
I’ve always loved keeping journals and while I was away trekking the Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal, I made sure I kept a daily record. Some days were definitely written more coherently and neater than others – particularly those penned at lower altitudes, and not while balancing off the side of mountains!
Other than crossing a finish line, what does achievement and success look like to you?
I measure personal success by bringing encouragement to others, having a great relationship with my husband and two adult kids, remaining fit and healthy, and raising funds for cancer research.
How to Turn Your Life Around: A Conversation with Lisa Messenger and Heather Hawkins
Collective Hub and Murdoch Books present an inspirational evening with Collective Hub Founder, Lisa Messenger and Heather Hawkins, runner and author of new book Adventurous Spirit in a Q&A style event themed around resilience, survival and turning your life around. November 29, Sydney. Get your ticket here.
Adventurous Spirit by Heather Hawkins, $29.99, Murdoch Books.