Peter Wright shouldn’t be here. In September 2013 he was diagnosed with a brain tumour – glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) – after suffering a seizure. The survival rates for this aggressive form of cancer are low. ‘Most people don’t live beyond the first year,’ says Peter. Yet more than two and a half years on, he’s still fighting. And running has played no small part.
Peter, 59, from Kingston upon Thames in Surrey, has been a runner for decades. He was one of the 13 ‘parkrun pioneers’ who took part in the inaugural Bushy Park time trial in 2004, which went on to become the global phenomenon that is parkrun. He’s also a member of Ranelagh Harriers running club in Richmond.
Peter and his wife, Jackie, refused to accept anything but a positive prognosis. The treatment was aggressive – surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy – but he got through it. Determined to resume his normal active life, he set his sights on the 10th anniversary of parkrun in October 2014 – just over a year after his diagnosis. ‘I turned up at Bushy Park intending to walk it, but I managed a jog,’ he says. ‘It felt amazing, so I returned the week after, and the week after that. It wasn’t long before I felt well enough to rejoin the club’s Tuesday training sessions.’
Peter’s doctors were astounded. They said his strong heart, lungs and immune system, along with his mental toughness, must have helped him withstand the gruelling treatment. ‘In other words, being a lifelong runner has made me one of a small percentage of brain cancer sufferers who are outliving expectations,’ says Peter. ‘Only three per cent of sufferers make it past three years. I’m an outrider, at the frontier of GBM survival – and I’m fighting to keep it that way.’
And the battle has been a brutal one. In September last year, Peter collapsed while running in Richmond Park. ‘I was lucky to be among fellow Ranelagh Harriers, who called the ambulance,’ he says. ‘The paramedics thought I’d had a stroke, but I knew the tumour was back.’
In fact, cancer had spread to three sites on Peter’s brain. He saw a consultant at the forefront of GBM research, who made a grim statement: the standard NHS chemotherapy treatment for this type of cancer was inadequate. ‘The NHS holds a very special place in our hearts,’ says Jackie. ‘But, sadly, it’s woefully underfunded when it comes to brain cancer. Peter’s consultant described the standard treatment as being like applying a plaster to an amputation. Peter would still decline rapidly over a period of weeks, losing faculties and functions, and, eventually, his life before the end of the year. It was late September and we were being told Peter wouldn’t see Christmas.’
But there was a small flicker of hope. The consultant told them about a revolutionary combination-treatment plan, including the drug Avastin, which destroys the blood supply to the tumour. It’s not licensed for use for GBM, mainly because it is too expensive. So treatment would need to be self-funded.
‘There was no question we had to try it,’ says Peter. ‘Some patients on this combination are still going after four years. It would buy us a great deal of time – and with that comes hope.’
But with the cost of the drugs reaching £90,000 a year, they had to start fundraising. ‘So far we’ve raised nearly £15,000, a significant proportion of that from the running community,’ says Jackie. ‘Family, friends, colleagues and complete strangers have donated.’ parkrun founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt honoured his old friend by running the Palermo Marathon and asking the parkrun community to sponsor him. ‘We’ve been overwhelmed and fortified by the generosity of time, love and money,’ says Peter.
He and Jackie are passionate about campaigning to raise awareness of this under-researched cancer. ‘We’d love everyone who requires this treatment to get access to it – and to find the treatment that means one day GBM has a 10-year survival rate,’ says Jackie.
At the moment, Peter is resting and focusing on treatment – scans show the tumours are shrinking. His goal is to complete another parkrun. ‘I’ll keep the tail runner company if they don’t mind walking,’ he says. In the meantime he’s been visiting local parkruns to cheer on the runners. As well as expressing his thanks to those who’ve donated to his fund, Peter wants to spread the word about what running has done for him.
‘I give a short speech to the crowd just before they set off,’ he says. ‘I remind them what an incredible thing it is they’re doing, getting up and joining together for a run every Saturday morning. parkrun has helped hundreds of thousands of people get and stay active and healthy. It’s not just about losing weight or getting a PB. I’m positive proof that keeping fit by running pays dividends when life throws you a challenge like cancer.
‘I hope the runners set off a little more inspired, thankful for what their bodies are capable of and committed to sticking with it,’ he says.