Siobhan Smith, from Penistone, has survived cancer four times. Now she’s in training to complete the Leeds Abbey Dash 10K to raise money for Yorkshire Cancer Research. Nikki Brady met her to find out more about her experience and why she’s going above and beyond to help more people in the region avoid, survive and cope with the disease.
Like many runners in Yorkshire, Siobhan Smith has battled wind, rain and snow in an effort to reach her ultimate goal – crossing the finish line at the Leeds Abbey Dash 10K in November.
Those who enjoy a brisk walk around More Hall Reservoir, near Stocksbridge, may have noticed the 38-year-old as she completes her regular training sessions at the popular beauty spot.
But few will be aware of the huge obstacles Siobhan has overcome in her journey towards health and fitness, and how running has become an essential part of her recovery from a fourth bout of cancer.
“Learning to run has been life-changing for me. Exercise has helped me cope mentally, and I’ve met some lovely people,” Siobhan says.
When we meet at Fox Valley shopping centre’s Central Bean, just eight weeks have passed since Siobhan underwent surgery to remove a tumour from her brain.
The operation was the latest in a series of procedures and therapies that the coffee shop assistant manager has had to endure since she was first diagnosed with cancer in her early twenties.
But as I soon learn, Siobhan is the epitome of Yorkshire grit and stoicism, and despite her relentless health struggles she is more determined than ever to regain her independence and be an inspiration to others diagnosed with the disease.
“I’ve always had a positive outlook on life,” she tells me. “When I found out there was a tumour on my brain, my first thought was ‘I’ve done throat, breast and lung, I can crack on and do the brain too’.”
Siobhan had moved away from home to start a career as a night club manager when she first started experiencing worrying symptoms.
“My mum always said I could sell ice to the Eskimos. I was enjoying my job and, as a young woman, I felt proud to be managing such a big venue. But suddenly, I got really sick with flu-like symptoms. I was also losing my voice for two to three weeks at a time. I was reluctant to leave my job but I decided that I needed to go home and get checked out by my GP.”
Tests revealed that Siobhan had throat cancer, and she was put on a ‘cocktail’ of drugs which forced her to take 18 months off work.
“I was shocked and devastated,” she admits. “I had no idea it might be cancer. I had to take a pill every day that provided a steady, continuous dose of chemotherapy into my body. I suffered side-effects from the chemo, and had to take anti-inflammatories and steroids. The drugs were constantly changed and I was in and out of hospital regularly.
“At one point, I lost my voice for 14 weeks. My dad kept me busy, growing plants and creating hanging baskets. We’d have competitions to see who could grow the best strawberries. That really kept me going.”
Eventually Siobhan was allowed to return to work part-time, and her hospital visits became less frequent. She got a job working in the café of a clothing store, and, with her parents’ encouragement, she learned how to drive.
“My life never has and never will go back to the way it was before. But work and driving gave me a bit of normality. I had some nice friends and we enjoyed good nights out, but I still had my mum for a cup of tea and a chat when I needed support.”
About eight years later, Siobhan was told that she had cancer for a second time. A lump was discovered in her breast during a routine scan for a heart murmur she’d had since birth. She underwent three lumpectomies carried out by keyhole surgery.
Siobhan explained, “The lump was deep down in the breast. I was lucky that the nurse felt it and it was found early. I was determined to work through operations, even though the drugs made me feel sick. Some days I didn’t want to get out of bed. But I just tried to take it on the chin and carry on.”
Following her diagnosis with breast cancer, doctors decided Siobhan should have regular MRI scans to monitor her throat, breasts and heart. It was during one of these scans that cancerous cells were discovered in her lung.
Within two weeks, she’d had keyhole surgery to remove a quarter of her lung. An allergic reaction to the surgical cotton used in her suture meant she was forced to undergo a second operation.
“I had to learn to breathe again. I couldn’t even make a cup of tea or get in the bath on my own,” Siobhan says. “I was heavily strapped up, with my arm in a sling, so my body could recover. This time I learned how to knit and got into adult colouring. I also read a lot, and started watching series like Prison Break and Breaking Bad. Thank God for Netflix.”
Siobhan’s brain tumour was detected in October last year. She’d been experiencing debilitating headaches that lasted three to four days. She wasn’t sleeping or eating properly and her mood was also affected.
“I definitely didn’t think I had a tumour on my brain. When I was told I had cancer for a fourth time, I felt angry, upset and fed up. But I knew that after everything else I’d been through, I was strong enough to handle this too.”
Siobhan underwent exploratory surgery twice, where doctors used tiny cameras to map her brain and take samples. After the tumour changed shape, she decided to allow doctors to remove it. She was not put under general anaesthetic for the surgery, meaning she was awake for the whole procedure.
“The worst thing about the surgery was having to have my head shaved. The crown of every woman is their hair. I’d always taken pride in mine, with funky styles and crazy colours. It was soul-destroying to lose it.”
Siobhan started working at Central Bean a year ago. In January, Mark Dransfield, property developer and founder of the Dransfield Properties which owns and manages developments including Fox Valley, put Siobhan in touch with Sonia Greaves, a natural health therapist who runs SoNatural Therapy. Following a two hour session with Sonia, Siobhan made huge changes to her diet, including drinking more water and eating more vegetables and less red meat.
Mark also decided to lend Siobhan his own personal trainer. Katie Ford owns Fit4It, a gym in Tankersley. She quickly started Siobhan on a training programme to get her ready to complete the Abbey Dash in November.
“Mark said I needed a goal – something to focus on mentally. Katie has put such a lot of time and effort into me. In January I’d never run in my life. Now I can run 7K in 45 minutes. When I go out training I don’t think about cancer, drugs or work. It makes me feel so much better in myself. I took a few weeks off for the brain surgery but now I’m back on it. I’m lucky to have friends and colleagues who are happy to join me on my training runs.”
Siobhan is now focused on raising as much money as possible for Yorkshire Cancer Research through her participation in the 10K. She’s distributed collection boxes throughout the shopping centre, and Sandersons Boutique has taken on the charity as its official partner.
While Siobhan has had the opportunity to see how cancer treatment has progressed over the past 10 years, she’s also experienced the pain of losing someone she loves to the disease.
“My best friend, Catherine Hallett, died from leukaemia two years ago, aged just 35,” Siobhan explains. “She was diagnosed and died within a year, leaving behind two young children. I was devastated. She was at Royal Hallamshire Hospital while I was having treatment for lung cancer, and I’d often go and see her. I know that if Catherine was still here, she’d be in the background saying ‘You can get up that hill!’
“Catherine’s family chose to raise money for Yorkshire Cancer Research at her funeral. It seemed right that I should choose the charity too. I was diagnosed and treated in Yorkshire and now I’m recovering in Yorkshire. I’d like the money I raise to go towards improving the experience of other patients in the region.”
To sponsor Siobhan, please visit www.ycr.org.uk/fromcancerto10K.