Doing a competitive sport teaches you many things, it makes you tough, strong, resilient and strengthens your threshold for adversity. In 2012 Gemma Hillier Moses heard the news that she had stage 3 Berketts Lymphoma, a very rare form of cancer.
Gemma leaned on family, friends and running to process the news. With some incredible medical staff and an extremely positive mindset Gemma is cancer free and faster than ever, clocking a 9:14.63 3km last year and most importantly, happy and healthy! We talk to Gemma about her journey, how she was able to overcome such a life changing experience and how running impacted the journey.
Belle Lap: What inspired your decision to start running competitively?
GHM: My dad and family influenced my love for sport from the very beginning. My dad had two girls, so as you can imagine we were pretty much introduced to every single sport going. I remember going down to the park with him, he was determined that me and my sister would be able to kick a rugby ball over and in between the rugby posts by the time we started at primary school. Let’s just say rugby wasn’t really my thing. Following that my running career started when I was in primary school, as did my first competitive race. I did some school and club races, however I don’t think I ever really applied myself to running properly until the last couple of years. I now see and understand what it takes to push to that next level.
Photo: Lornah Sports
Belle Lap: How has running enriched your life?
GHM: I honestly couldn’t imagine my life without running! I have had so many amazing experiences. I have travelled the world, met my best friends and my now-husband through running. Running has helped me learn so much about myself, helped me to push myself to places I didn’t think possible and has given me a focus in life which I have not experienced before.
My whole family run, my parents do more races than I do, including a weekly local ‘park run‘. My sister is an Iron Lady, my husband is an international 1500m runner and so sport surrounds my life on a daily basis. I think sport and being active is such a wonderful thing I feel lucky it’s a big part of my life.
Belle Lap: You were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2012, can you tell us a little about that time in your life.
GHM: So where to do I start. I started working with my coach Alex Hains in the November of 2011 and things started to come on really well. I have a great relationship with Alex who not only is my coach but a really great friend. I had the best period of training I’d had in a long time after suffering a lot of injuries previously and started to build confidence through the winter season heading into the summer season.
I was on a work trip in London and on the way back things just went horribly wrong. As anyone who knows me I tend to carry a lot of bags, have my phone in one hand and tend to be rushing around. As the train approached ‘Loughborough’ Train station. I stepped off the platform with my suitcase dragging behind me and instead of stepping on the step my foot literally just went straight down (and yes I actually fell down) the platform. My arms and body were clinging onto the platform with my legs under the stationary train. My first thought was pure embarrassment and I tried to get up as quickly as possible – Honestly who really does that? I definitely learned to look and listen more when the signs and conductor say to ‘Mind the Gap’.
I soon realized not only had I fallen down the gap but also broke my ankle in the process and later found out that it was in an awkward place around the joint and I would need an operation to pin the bones together in order for them to heal. Not the best reward for a winter of hard work.
That moment was the start of what turned out to be a slightly interesting year to say the least. I spent 10 weeks on crutches and watched a lot of day time TV.
I worked with an incredible physio called Rone Thompson who got my ankle back to an incredible place and I rarely have problems with it now. I wouldn’t of got to that place without Rone, as it took hours of specific rehab and someone who knew exactly what they were talking about to guide me.
It was actually during that period of rehab when I started to see the signs which later led to being diagnosed with cancer. I was aqua jogging with a fellow athlete, Stevie and I noticed a small lump on my neck. I didn’t really think anything of it and thought it was probably my glands and that I was just a bit ‘run down’. I left it for a week or so but nothing had really changed. The lump had just got slightly bigger and a little bit harder. I went to the doctors just to check everything was ok. The doctor did some blood tests which came back fine and then referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist at the hospital for an appointment in two week’s time.
The Ear, nose and throat specialist did an ultra sound and all the checks that they do and they diagnosed me with a ‘cyst’. Apparently, nothing at all to worry about and I was told I could carry on my life as normal and have it removed when I was ready, via an operation. That summer I was due to live in London for 8 weeks with my colleagues at Nike and work during the Olympics so I didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity. I decided to put my operation off until September, but also on the National Health Service I couldn’t get in for an operation until then anyway so it made the most sense.
As they said, a cyst isn’t dangerous it just doesn’t look too pretty on the side of your neck. Little did I know that a misdiagnosis in the cancer world is actually quite a common thing. That lump that I had in my neck was actually a tumor that was rapidly growing!!!
I carried on working and doing my thing, I was away in Amsterdam on a work trip in June and I remember one evening we went out for dinner and I was so tired, like beyond normal tiredness. I still managed my morning runs fine before work but that evening things just felt a little different.
I woke up one morning with a really bad headache and my neck ached like crazy and I just remember ringing a private consultant and asking for the operation as soon as possible . At that point I felt I couldn’t go on any longer without getting rid of this lump. I had a couple of additional symptoms which now looking back are potential signs of cancer, however at the time you just don’t think like that.
I remember walking round central London looking for a ball dress for a military ball I was attending with my friends and I was profusely sweating so much while I was walking round. I was just so hot all over but I put it down to London being very busy and hot and didn’t think any more about it. That same day I went to Nandos for dinner and had a dodgy stomach for two weeks after that. I had no idea about cancer, the signs or the symptoms etc. I just assumed it was a dodgy meal, however now I know it was two tumors that had developed quickly in my abdomen and my bowel.
Lymphoma is a very aggressive cancer and I went from stage 1 in May to stage 3 in a space of 2 months. It was only diagnosed because I had fast tracked my operation. If it would have hit stage 4, then sadly I wouldn’t be writing this today.
Belle Lap: How did running help you get through the hardest times during the diagnosis and remission?
GHM: I think looking back, my mentality towards running really changed when I reached remission. I could probably actually say that having cancer has been my inspiration to really give running my best shot.
Running was my life line during my cancer journey and it gave me the control I needed when my life was spinning out of my control. It’s really hard to describe but I feel like it saved my life and now I literally cannot live without it. I wasn’t able to run too much during my first five weeks of treatment and I was told by the doctors that I wouldn’t be able to run for at least a year post chemotherapy. That weekend I ran for 30 minutes. That’s when I knew that I knew my body best and how it felt and I was just going to try and see what I could keep doing.
During treatment I literally ran about once a week and that was around 10-11 min/ mile. It just felt so great to be actually out there saying F*%k you to cancer!!
I’d ran for years yet at that time during treatment I felt like a complete beginner, like I was starting out running for the first time.
During treatment I just tried to do little bits of exercise even if it was some Nike training club exercises in the lounge, or 10 minutes on the ski machine just to keep myself sane. There were days where I just sat on the sofa all day too exhausted to do anything, eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to keep weight on, some weeks I was sat in a hospital bed for 5 days straight. That was life at the time. I did what I could and I felt better for it but I was never going to be able to get out the door every day.
I feel really strongly that Sport and physical activity are so much more powerful than people realize and it is only when you look back on something you have been through-for me cancer-that you really appreciate it. It’s so powerful how it can be a vehicle to helping someone completely change their life for the better and help them through some incredibly difficult times. That is what running has done for me. It helped me survive.
Belle Lap: You raced a half marathon, ‘The Bupa Great North Run’ between chemotherapy treatments. What inspired you to want to still race at such a tough time in your life?
GHM: I’d had three cycles of chemo already and still had three to go. I wouldn’t necessarily call it racing. I felt like I crawled around the course, but it will always be my proudest moment in my life despite anything I may still go on to achieve. I ran it with my parents, my sister Kirsty and a lovely guy called Cliff. The whole experience was incredible and I can’t thank my family enough for all the support and belief they gave me.
How I came to running the Great North Run basically just sums up the incredible positivity and attitude my family and husband Lewis Moses live by every single day. I was in between chemo treatments and we decided to do the ‘Leicester Sky bike ride’. I had a small infection at the time so needed to go to the hospital to get antibiotics, so we decided to cycle into the hospital on our way round the ‘sky ride’ to get treated before heading home.
The doctors thought I was mad, however exercise and sport were my form of control in a difficult time in my life. On that ride my husband Lewis was actually the one who suggested doing the Half Marathon. He just said “wouldn’t it be amazing Gem, if you run the great north while going through chemotherapy, Think how much money you would raise for the Our space appeal” The Our Space appeal was a charity I was supporting that was raising money to build a young people specific cancer ward at the Leicester Royal infirmary.
My parents thought it was a great idea and said they would run it with me. Over the next week I just couldn’t stop thinking about it and I just thought you know what I’m going to give this a go. It was the best decision I have ever made and gave me something positive to focus on while going through chemotherapy. I got that control back in my life, which I hadn’t had since my diagnosis.
It wasn’t easy at all, I didn’t sail through the process. I finished a 10 day cycle of chemotherapy and finished 3 days before the ‘Great North’. Two days before the race I tried to go out for a 6 mile run. I had the loop in my head and I was determined to do it. I got to a mile and had to stop and walk back. I was just utterly exhausted and even with all my determination and positively I had I knew I needed to call it a day. That was the day I learned it is important to listen to your head and not just your heart.
Prior to the race I went to the hospital to check all my levels and check I was ok to still run. It was touch and go but we got the Green Light and up to Newcastle, UK we went.
Belle Lap: How did your life perspective change after recovering from Berketts Lymphoma and being cancer free.
My perspective in life has changed more than I ever imagined it would. Although I never ever want to go through cancer again it has actually in a weird way it changed my life for the better. I learned a hell of a lot about myself during this time and also the people around me. I was also one of the lucky ones who can sit here today and say I survived cancer.
There are people who fight as hard as a battle and don’t survive and that reality is really hard to deal with. It still really upsets me today. When I was diagnosed you think why me?? Then you quickly realize that I am a lucky one who survived.
Going through cancer also taught me how incredible the human body and mind really is and how to respect it with everything you have as one day you may need it to fight one hell of a battle for you.
I couldn’t thank my own body enough for how it coped with the treatment and how it didn’t give up on me, but also how well it’s recovered and what it is allowing me to do now. It’s incredible really.
The biggest thing to take away from going through something like cancer and coming through the other end is perspective. When you’re going through a hard time I always just think there is someone facing a harder battle than you out there somewhere so be kind to people! I’ve also learned that you really do only live one life.
As Richard Branson quoted in his book ‘Life isn’t a dress rehearsal, this is it’.
I just love that quote and a lot of decisions I have made post cancer have been guided by that. I don’t want to be looking back at my life when I’m 90 years old wishing I’d taken this opportunity, or regretting not doing that…
We don’t have to conform to what society tells us to do. We can really do whatever we want to do and life for me is about challenging myself, pushing boundaries, taking the right opportunities and most importantly having fun! When you stop having fun every day then it is time for a change!
Belle Lap: You worked for Nike in central London after university, can you tell us a bit about the job and why you loved it?
GHM: I was so lucky after University in securing my first job with Nike. It was like a dream come true. I had been an ambassador for Nike at University in my final year for the women’s training Brand team. They introduced me to the world of Nike and gave me a taste of what career I could have with the brand and it all really excited me. Not to mention all the amazing clothes we got.
I started my career with Nike as an EKIN which I can honestly say is one of the best jobs around. It gave me an incredible insight and experience into all areas of the company, I also worked with some incredible people. I went on to plan projects in the women’s training brand team, The young athletes team and also the access to sport team.
My time at Nike was 5 of the best years of my life. I got to travel the world, gain such incredible work experience and have so much fun while doing it. I was actually diagnosed with cancer whilst working with Nike and I can’t ever thank them enough for how supportive and amazing they were. I was literally blown away. Everyone I worked with from the UK office, to the European HQ to the global HQ went above and beyond to help me. I had always felt it but from that moment, and all the support I received I really did feel like I was part of an amazing global family.
I decided to move on from Nike a year and a half after I finished treatment. It was such a hard decision for me to make. After I had finished treatment I struggled with getting back into work and back to ‘normality’. It’s a lot harder mentally than people think. We decided to move to London two months after I finished treatment as I wanted to get away from everything. I was going to work with a bald head and wearing a wig and I just couldn’t get my head around it all. I’d just spent the last 8 months fighting for my life and then I was back into work and living in London where I felt quite isolated.
Very quickly I realized having cancer just completely changed my perspective and I decided I didn’t want to live in London anymore. I wanted to be close to my family, spend more time dedicated to my charity and also to my running, which just wasn’t possible in London at the time.
Belle Lap: You have an awesome training group of women in the UK. What’s the training set up like and what kind of energy you ladies bring to training?
GHM: Loughborough has a number of different groups that train. I train in with a very small group of girls and I’m coached by Alex Hains who has coached me since 2011. I found I needed to be in a group where my programme was focused on me as an individual in order to get the best out of myself rather than tailoring it to a larger group. We are a group of like-minded individuals who get on so well together and support each other. I used to train on my own the last few years which was fine in terms of sessions but it’s so nice to be surrounded by such a talented group of girls. There are so many people in Loughborough, boys and girls alike. I pretty much never run on my own.
My running really changed after I started to work with Alex. As a coach and a friend he just really gets me. We just understand each other and we’re in it together. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today without Alex. As a coach I don’t think anyone could have been through more than Alex has with me with a broken ankle and cancer. That’s pretty tough to deal with but he’s helped me both physically and mentally with my running and we ‘ve made some great progress over the last year or so and I really feel this is just the beginning. I think regardless of what training group you are in you have to fully believe in the system you are in , surround yourself with people you work well with and you can get the hard work done, but have fun in the process.
Belle Lap: What advice can you give to people trying to overcome a really tough time in their life?
GHM: The best advice I could give is keep smiling every day and surround yourself with positive people. I know that’s easier said than done but there is no point worrying about things that you can’t control. I learned very quickly to play the hand I’d been dealt and focus on the things I could control.
It’s incredible how much your mentality can help you through even the hardest of times. It can have an incredible influence on how your body copes when something horrible is thrown at it. Lewis my husband spent every hour of the day with me when I went through treatment and he never failed to keep me smiling. That was so important to our sanity during the hardest time of our lives.
Belle Lap: What are your running and work goals for the year?
GHM: I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, get my head down and train hard and see where that takes me. After a great winters training I’m really excited about the summer. I just love racing so I’m excited to get back on the track again this summer! I’m also very excited for some sunshine.
Work wise I’ve actually set up a charity called MOVE. MOVE provides young people who have and are recovering from cancer with 1:1 physical activity support, guidance and advice. It gives them help to create healthy habits which last a lifetime. We have just become a registered charity so I’m going to fully focus my efforts on the charity this year. It’s an exciting time for us and I’m so proud of where the charity has come from and where it is now. (You can follow MOVE on Twitter on the link below)
Belle Lap: What advice can you give to other female distance runners?
GHM: I think the main advice I would give to other female runners is work hard , be patient and surround yourself with people that really care about you. Running is not just about racing and medals, it’s about the journey you take to get there. It can take you to some incredible places, give you the most amazing friends and it can teach you so much about yourself. Have no fear, look after your body and enjoy that journey as you’ll only get the opportunity to do it once!
Belle Lap: What words do you live by?
GHM: I live by the quote;
Belle Lap: What’s next?
GHM: To keep healthy, get ready for the outdoor track season and continue to work on my charity MOVE . Most importantly have lots of fun along the way.
You can follow Gemma on Social media here!