Iron woman: A battle against the odds

Jane Tomlinson was diagnosed with terminal cancer six years ago. She has asmazed doctors by surviving so long - and raising £1.5m for charity by competing in endurance events. Now a grandmother, she was yesterday named Woman of the Year. By Guy Adams
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The Independent Online

Jane Tomlinson has said "never again" quite a few times in the past six years. It's a natural reaction to crossing the finish line in any marathon, triathlon, or "Iron Man" contest - and she's done plenty of those since being diagnosed with terminal cancer back in 2000.

This time, Tomlinson really means it, though. Yesterday, at a ceremony to name her Woman of the Year, she declared that her remarkable and heroic race against the odds has finally entered its closing straight. "My body says that I have to retire," said the 42-year-old mother of three. "I suffer from a progressive disease, and there comes a point when you have to admit that it's time to call it a day. We've agreed from now on to concentrate on new ways of making funds."

So ends the uplifting tale of a woman who has devoted the final years of her short life to confounding the doctors who said she wouldn't survive past 2001.

In a series of gruelling endurance events, Tomlinson has raised more than £1.5m for cancer charities, and made headlines across the world. Her most recent challenge, a 4,200-mile cycle ride across America, will now almost certainly be her last.

"I have had five weeks to reflect on that trip," she said. "There was a lot of pain, and I suffered from lack of sleep. I lost about two stone, and am still trying to get my life back on an even keel, get the pain under control, and manage sleep. I have said before that certain events would be my last, but this time I definitely mean it."

At first sight, it's difficult to believe that Tomlinson - a tiny (5ft 2in), softly spoken Yorkshire-woman, who currently weighs-in at under seven stone - has just completed a remarkable series of endurance events. Yet, for both good and bad, her swims, runs and cycle rides have had a profound effect on modern attitudes towards the terminally ill.

Yesterday's Women of the Year award reflects both the blood, sweat and tears she's shed, and the inspiration others will draw from her story. It's a prestigious accolade that in the past 50 years has gone to the likes of Lady Diana, Margaret Thatcher, Kelly Holmes and Tina Turner.

"Cancer is a very lonely and complicated disease that brings up a lot of issues, but Jane has faced up to it instead of lying down, and achieved an incredible amount and inspired many people as a result," says Louise Chunn, the editor of Good Housekeeping, which sponsored the gong. "It's not long ago that people would never use the word cancer. It was a terrible taboo. My parents were doctors and they would just say the letters CA. But her story has really done an incredible amount to break down that barrier."

The long journey to yesterday's lunch at the Millennium Hotel in Knightsbridge began in 1990, when Tomlinson was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. In the decade that followed, she underwent two rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, together with a double mastectomy. They were thought to have been a success. Then, in 2000, she learned that the cancer had suddenly spread to her bones. It was incurable, and the prognosis was that she had less than six months to live. At the time, Tomlinson was living in Leeds with her husband Mike, two teenage daughters, Suzanne and Rebecca, and a three-year-old son, Steven.

"It was a very, very difficult time," recalls Mike. "Suddenly it was a struggle for her to do normal things. I remember one time when we were Christmas shopping, she stopped and nearly broke down twice, just walking across Leeds City Centre."

The decision to take up long-distance running offered a chance to take control of her illness. "She had never previously run, or done any hard physical activity," adds Mike. "I mean, she used to like gardening and walking, but she didn't do anything athletic, and I don't think we even owned a bike."

"But she did want to feel better and the running somehow made her feel more in control of her disease. As we went through the winter of 2000, she started talking about doing a race. At first, we thought 'yeah, right' but as the training runs started getting longer and longer, we suddenly started thinking 'bloody hell, she's going to do it'."

The first event Tomlinson entered was the Race for Life in 2001, in which she raised £3,500. The next year, she got a place on the London Marathon, and suddenly found herself thrust into the limelight as the only runner ever to complete the 26 miles while undergoing chemotherapy. "We did a small piece for the Yorkshire Post, about Jane's illness, and it seemed to catch everyone's imagination," adds Mike. "Before we knew it, we had TV and national newspapers knocking on our door."

Since 2002, Tomlinson has competed in three further marathons (two in London, one in New York), three triathlons, and two Iron Man contests (a 2.5-mile swim, followed by a 110-mile bike ride and a full marathon). She has also been showered with accolades, winning the Helen Rollason award at the 2002 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and the MBE in 2003.

In addition to demonstrating that people with a terminal illness can still live a full and fruitful life, she has also raised £1.5m, divided between five different cancer charities, and written two memoirs. The most recent, You Can't Take it With You, was released to great acclaim last week.

Yet it hasn't all been plain sailing. Like many people in the public eye, Tomlinson's success has raised her head firmly above the parapet. At one point, several downmarket newspapers dispatched reporters to follow up a tip that her illness wasn't terminal (they drew a blank). "I wish they'd just phoned," says Mike.

She has also been criticised for the amount of time she spends away from home and her offspring. The trip across America was 15 months in the planning, and it took nine long weeks to get from the start (the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco) to the finishing line in New York. "People often asks if Jane regrets spending so much time away from her kids, but the simple answer is that she doesn't," adds Mike. "Our eldest, Suzanne, is 21 and has graduated from university, and Rebecca is 18 and about to go to university. She isn't going to say 'look, I'm dying - can you stay at home, please'. She wants to let them flourish.

"Jane is actually very precious about the time she spends with the children. Steven, our youngest, was in America for the whole time she was doing the bike ride. It's really misleading to say that she's in some way neglected them, but frankly we don't mind it too much, as we know it simply isn't true."

Other cancer sufferers have also complained that Tomlinson is setting standards by which others with terminal illnesses will be judged. Her appeal has received letters from concerned breast cancer groups, asking her to take a lower profile. However, she denies that she is seeking to set herself up as a role-model.

"I've done this principally to raise funds," she says. "I am not trying to inspire people to put their bodies on the line. Everyone reacts differently to a terminal illness. I've never sought to make people think they have to go out and run marathons; it's simply my way of staying positive and to keep my life moving forward. There are lots of other ways to keep positive, and of course they are all equally valid."

Other interviewers have suggested that Tomlinson is occasionally short-tempered or stroppy. Yet those close to her cite her single-mindedness as an essential ingredient to her success.

"Just before she set off across America, Jane became very ill," adds Mike. "We thought about quitting; in fact, I begged her to. But she's got a natural stubbornness, and once the trip was started it was really the only thing getting her through.

"At times, the pain was incredible. She was getting up at 3am to inject herself with morphine, then setting off at 5am to cycle for up to 12 hours. Some nights, I would estimate seven to 10 of the 90 we spent out there, she didn't sleep at all. That really is the difference between Jane and normal people. Plenty of people would have the physical strength to do what she's done, but very few would have the mental strength. She's so focused, in the face of terrible pain."

It is, perhaps, a mark of Jane Tomlinson's endurance that she last week returned to work, as a radiographer in her native Leeds. She learned recently that her cancer had spread to her liver, and was eager to return to the grindstone while she still could.

Meanwhile, her eldest daughter, Suzanne, produced a grandchild, Emily, on 2 October. Jane was able to introduce herself to the new arrival, six years after she ought to have perished. It was, in its own way, yet another triumph of endurance.

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