Brighton novelist Jo Rees explores the healing power of running after cancer

Brighton novelist Jo Rees draws on her own experience of breast cancer in a new book celebrating running’s remarkable ability to restore and empower.

Joanna Rees credit Catherine Lloyd
Joanna Rees credit Catherine Lloyd

Writing as Josie Lloyd, Jo is the author of The Cancer Ladies’ Running Club, published by HQ.

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 and I finished treatment at the end of that summer, and I don’t think I can really say I was well for another year after that.

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“It takes a long time to get back on your feet, and I just wanted a book that would empower people to be well.

“I think the hardest time was after the treatment was over and my oncologist declared that I was in the top drawer of the cured – and that was really wonderful. But after that, the psychological aspect hit, and I found that really difficult to cope with.”

It became a question of making the conscious choice to be well – in the sense “of making the conscious choice not to be felled by the fear.”

The experience can leave so many people living in the shadow of what they have been through; Jo’s determination was not to do so. As she says, she has no idea what is going to happen. Everything could change. The cancer could return and she could be dead by next year. But equally she could live till the age of 90.

“And if I do live to the age of 90, then I want to make sure that I don’t live until then terrified of what might happen. I don’t know what is around the corner. But I don’t want to live in fear.”

And that’s the positivity that Jo hopes will shine out of the book – even though it began in a very dark place.

The book is “100 per cent the most personal” Jo has ever written: “It came about because even though I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I have always been a writer, and when I was a bit lost, I just needed to write it down, and I wrote down the whole process of treatment. When you encounter something that is life-changing, you encounter a lot of new people, a lot of stories, lots of medical information, lots of new words… and I love words! And you are encountering this strange lingo.

“And I have seen since how there is a lot of research about how journaling during treatment can prove to be really beneficial because with your worst fears, it is much better that they are out there on the page. And so I wrote it all down. And being a vain writer, I went through all the treatment and realised that I had 80,000 words which were quite funny and uplifting and entertaining as well.”

However, it was fiction that Jo really wanted to write: “It’s fiction that I always turn to. I am a fiction writer.” Besides, she saw the chance to write precisely she kind of fiction she had herself wanted in the circumstances – a kind of fiction she couldn’t find anywhere, “a story that wasn’t all doom and gloom and also gave you information.”

It was also a book that would undo the labelling that comes with a cancer diagnosis: “I was no longer a successful novelist, I was no longer a happy mum with a lovely family. I was a cancer patient.”

And so The Cancer Ladies’ Running Club was born, a book in which Jo drew heavily on her own experiences, but in which she creates Keira to live those experiences – particularly the discovery of running.

Keira’s path is Jo’s. Keira doesn’t want to sit in a hospital and stare mortality in the face, nor be part of a group of fellow cancer sufferers. Cancer is not her club. But, as she is forced to accept everything necessarily must change and her health becomes something she can’t rely on, she finds herself embracing running. Hot, sweaty, vomit-inducing running in the company of a tribe of women going through treatment.

“Running is wonderful. There is an enormous power in putting on your trainers, getting out in the fresh air and putting one front in front of the other just to reclaim your life.

"I had felt overtaken by my cancer diagnosis. But I found the act of running got me back to being me.”

Jo’s instinct would have been to curl up under the duvet, but with a group of women – just as Keira does in the book – she discovered both the power and the joy of running.

“It would be lovely to see the book as a film or on TV, but really I just think it is important for people to start to understand what the whole process of breast cancer feels like and also just to try to get rid of the fear around it. There are so many people like me that are thriving the other side. We are not just survivors. We have been through a really horrible experience.

“But if you are lucky enough to survive, then having a mid-life kick is maybe not a totally bad thing. It makes you realise that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. It makes you put everything into perspective, the things that really matter in life.”