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Home > News > Joanna Panese completes the London Marathon for Scottish Autism

Joanna Panese completes the London Marathon for Scottish Autism

Courageous Joanna Panese marked the milestone of being five years clear of cancer by taking on one of the UK’s biggest sporting challenges.

Scottish Autism's Practice and Community Development Lead and mum of two felt at first too weak to even walk far after surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Five years later, she has completed the TCS London Marathon. She crossed the finish line on Sunday 21 April in what was a personal triumph for Joanna as she finally kicked cancer to the kerb - but she’s also vowed to help others. The money she raise will be split between Cancer Research UK and Scottish Autism. Joanna knows exactly how vital it is to raise funds for life-saving research to help scientists find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancers.

Joanna, 41, of Bannockburn, Stirling said: “I will always be grateful for the research that saved my life and gave me more time with my girls.

“Cancer was and is awful. Just five years ago at the end of intensive cancer treatment, I was at the lowest point of my life. I felt broken and down, physically and mentally. I couldn’t have even imagined a future where I was training to run 26 miles. But running has helped me slowly rebuild my strength and to move towards a new, happier chapter of my life.”

Joanna recalls vividly how she felt on October 31, 2018 at Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her daughters Emilia,14, and Georgia,11, were then both still in primary school. Joanna had first contacted her GP after discovering a lump on her left breast.

She said: “I remember as I was having an ultrasound, looking at the radiographer’s face and I saw his expression change.

“He asked someone else to come into the room and I knew at that point all was not well. Later that day I was told I had cancer. It was Halloween and it was a genuinely frightening thing to hear I had cancer. It felt like the ultimate Halloween ‘trick’. My first thought was for my girls as they were very young. My daughter had a ballet exam coming up and I didn’t want her to know in case it put her off her exam.

“I honestly didn’t worry so much about myself as I all I could think of was the girls and I knew the impact it was going to have on them. The breast cancer nurse gave me a book called ‘Mummy’s Lump’ to take home with me to help explain things to the girls. It was late November 2018 before I told the girls as I needed time to get my own head around it first.”

Just before Christmas that year, Joanna had mastectomy surgery. It was a shock when the surgeon explained that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes which also had to be removed. It was her younger daughter Georgia’s sixth birthday on Christmas Eve and Joanna was determined to be home from hospital for it.

Joanna said: “I was worried to hear that there was lymph node invasion.

“The surgeon was amazing and she told me that the lymph nodes had done their job and held the cancer back from spreading anywhere else in my body which was reassuring. But the surgery was extensive. I did get home in time for Georgia’s birthday but that Christmas was awful as I was in a lot of pain.”

Joanna’s 35th birthday in February 2019 was also overshadowed by preparation for chemotherapy treatment which started three days later. She had six sessions of two different chemotherapy media, losing her hair and towards the end even losing the ability to walk.

Joanna said: “I wanted to come out the other end and know that I had done everything I possibly could to be there for my girls long-term.

“The last three doses of chemotherapy left me with horrendous pain in my legs and I couldn’t walk. I was a dancer and danced right into my 30s and always was active so to not be able to walk properly was really awful. Early on the amazing staff at the hospital had prepared me for losing my hair. I had long dark hair and I decided to cut it short myself so that it wouldn’t be such a shock to the children when it did fall out.

“It grew back silver, grey and curly during lockdown and I had to walk around looking like a sheep and the girls called me ‘the sheep’.”

Chemotherapy finished in June 2019 and in August Joanna then faced 12 sessions of radiotherapy. Doctors explained her cancer was oestrogen driven so she was prescribed the hormone therapy drug Exemestane* for five years. She was also given monthly Goserelin injections. A side effect of treatment was early menopause.

She said: “The first two years after treatment were dreadful.

“I was having hot flushes, I had terrible joint pain and just felt horrendous. But things did start to feel better. I started running to see if it would help with pain in my joints. I found running really helpful both physically and mentally,

“It was a great feeling to be able to use my body in that way again after cancer treatment. The other week I did my first half marathon and I was absolutely staggered I could run 13.1 miles. My advice to anyone going through cancer today would be to do it your way. Try not to let your mind race with it all which is easier said than done.

“Someone said to me at the time 'deal with what you know, not what you think could happen'. The best thing people around me did was let me do things my way. They let me accept there were days I felt better and could do more things, go to work for example, but other days I needed to rest. Accept help when it comes, people want to help you, it's good to let them even if you feel you don't need it at the time.”

As Joanna trained for the London Marathon, she was grateful to her family, friends and work colleagues at Scottish Autism for their incredible support throughout her cancer journey. Some of the funds raised will help buy outdoor exercise equipment for Scottish Autism's Clannalba service, located in Lamington, South Lanarkshire.

Joanna said: “I will always be grateful for the support that Scottish Autism gave to me during my treatment and I am glad to be able to give something back by way of a donation to our Clannalba service. This will provide the opportunity for the individuals who are supported there to access exercise opportunities in an environment which is appropriate to their sensory needs.”

Karen Wilson, Income Generation and Partnership Lead at Scottish Autism, commented: "We are incredibly grateful to Joanna for using her London Marathon experience to help raise funds for our services.

"Joanna's strength and courage during her cancer journey has been an inspiration to us as her colleagues."

Cancer Research UK is working towards a world where everybody can live longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer. The charity’s discoveries and breakthroughs have saved countless lives, from the research that led to the development of the HPV vaccine to playing a role in around half of the world’s essential cancer drugs.

Lisa Adams, Cancer Research UK’s spokeswoman in Scotland, said: “We are grateful to Joanna for her support and know her story will make an impact on everyone who hears it.

““We’ve been at the heart of the progress that has already seen cancer survival in the UK double in the last 50 years, but we’re not stopping now. Incredible supporters like Joanna are helping us to go further and faster in the fight against the disease. By raising money for vital research, she is bringing hope to people affected by cancer across Scotland.

“Nearly 1 in 2 of us will get cancer in our lifetime.** All of us can support the research that will beat it.”