Paula Radcliffe ‘burst into tears’ at shattering news teen daughter had cancer
Paula Radcliffe experienced the full range of highs and lows during her glittering running career. From smashing world records on the streets of the capital, winning the London Marathon three times, to sitting forlornly on the roadside in Athens with her Olympic dream in tatters, she tasted it all.
But nothing could have prepared her for the moment last year when a doctor broke the news that Isla, her 14-year-old daughter, had a tumour growing on one of her ovaries.
“After Isla had undergone a battery of hospital tests, I hoped it would still be something benign even though we had been sent to the oncology department,” recalls Paula.
“But I was given the diagnosis that nobody wants to hear when the doctor said Isla had cancer. The doctor had asked Isla to sit in the waiting room before telling me what it was.
“I burst into tears but had to stop crying and pull myself together before Isla came back into the room a few minutes later. The doctor then explained the diagnosis to Isla.”
It was a shattering blow for Paula, 47, and husband and former coach Gary Lough, who live with Isla and their 10-year-old son Raphael, in Monaco.
Small signs that something might be amiss with Isla’s health had begun a few months earlier.
“In March last year Isla started her period, which was a little more painful than I remember, but we didn’t really think anything of it,” says Paula.
“But by July Isla said she was getting out of breath when having underwater swimming races with Raph in the pool.
“She also didn’t want to go on their trampoline as it gave her a pain in her bladder. After the diagnosis we realised this was because the tumour was bouncing on it.”
By late August, Isla was suffering unexplained bleeding between periods. Paula knew something was wrong so made an appointment with a paediatrician. The next day, at a hospital in nearby Nice, Isla underwent an ultrasound scan and other tests. When the results came in the family were devastated.
Isla had a malignant germ cell tumour, which grows in the cells that form the eggs in the ovary. They are rare and affect roughly one in 200,000 women. In men they can develop in the testicle where the sperm is formed.
“It was hard to take in as everything had happened so fast,” says Paula.
“But the care was phenomenal. A week later, Isla was starting chemo.”
For Isla, having a clear diagnosis was helpful. “A lot of the time leading up to the diagnosis I didn’t feel right, but I didn’t expect it to be cancer,” says Isla. “I thought it would be something like an allergy or an intolerance.
“I didn’t take it in that we were going to a cancer department, and only realised that afterwards. When I went back into the doctor’s room after being examined, mum was crying – although she had been crying a lot the day before that. Then the doctor started to explain it was cancer and I think I was just in a state of shock.”
Because of ongoing Covid restrictions, it was decided Paula would be mostly with Isla at the hospital while Gary took care of Raphael.
“We made a decision which was best for our family,” explains Paula. “I probably cope better with stress and I don’t think he could have seen his little girl going through all this in hospital on a daily basis. But he could still come in every day and cheer her up.”
When Gary visited, Paula would either spend time with Raphael or go for a short run, which she still does most days. “When we were over the initial shock and the medical team had explained everything, having that sporting background helped,” says Paula. “We had a treatment plan – like all the training plans I have followed over the years, and it was something we could stick to and see things improving.”
The prognosis was good with a high chance of it being successfully cured with surgery, and in Isla’s case, chemotherapy too, which started in September, just as she was starting a new school term. The drugs were delivered intravenously five days in a row, taking seven hours each time.
This was repeated after a three-week break. Her treatment ended in mid-November.
During chemotherapy, Isla was often left drained. In hospital and at home, she slept between doing schoolwork, reading and watching Netflix. She also lost her appetite.
“At first she couldn’t eat anything,” says Paula. “Plain rice and lemon juice became a staple.”
But the most traumatic side-effect of the treatment was Isla losing her long hair.
“It wasn’t a few strands falling out, but large clumps, which was so distressing,” says Paula. “When Isla washed her hair, it was like a bird’s nest in the shower. I spent a lot of time trying to save it, but we then decided to have it cut off.”
Isla saw the funny side of wearing a wig. “My hair has grown back but is a bit darker,” she says. “When I was wearing a wig, it became a joke at school with my friend when the teachers said it was now time to clip our hair back and I said ‘Oh!’ and we laughed. If someone mentions my cancer, I don’t get all upset. Sometimes I joke about it, sometimes I pretend it didn’t happen.”
As a result of the disease, there are concerns about Isla having her own children in future.
“The doctors can’t give us any guarantees,” says Paula. “It depends if the other ovary is fully functioning, which seems fine at the moment.
“I asked about possibly storing my own eggs for her. But he said he was not sure if they would want a 46-year-old’s eggs, and they can only be stored for up to 10 years anyway.”
Isla’s treatment went well, and in late November the tumour had shrunk enough to be surgically removed. The biopsy showed 98 per cent of the cancer had been destroyed by the chemo.
“I’m always proud of my kids, but Isla has been so brave,” says Paula. “She missed so much of school but has caught up. It has been extremely hard as the treatment has caused ‘chemo brain’ and her memory is still not back to normal. She struggles to concentrate, but that should improve.
“But kids bounce back so quickly. She was back playing mixed hockey in January, which is her main sport. She does run – as does Raph – but she struggles with all the pressure and expectation.”
Paula believes that because Isla was fit, it helped with her recovery.
Improving kids’ health – especially with growing concerns about obesity in society – has long been an issue close to the athlete’s heart.
“I’ve always told my kids I don’t mind what sport you do, but you’ll be active because of the benefits it brings across the board,” she says.
“I think the pandemic has hit everyone, but especially kids by preventing them from being active. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the value of spending more time together as a family, and that includes exercising together.”
So Paula has teamed up with Xplora, a smartwatch for kids, which encourages youngsters to be active by rewarding them for every 1,000 steps they complete.
Raphael loves his, and challenges his mum to outdo the number of steps he does a day. He often wins.
Paula will also be encouraging exercise through the Families on Track events, which are being staged again this summer. Inspired by an idea Isla had, and with the help of fellow former athlete Steve Cram, families can take part in a 10k run broken down into a fun relay for all ages.
Although Isla still requires three-monthly check-ups including MRI scans and blood tests, the family are now looking to the future.
“We are gradually trying to put it all behind us as Isla bounces back and moves on,” says Paula.
“When it was first diagnosed, I felt I had missed something and should have picked it up earlier. But the doctors reassured me it wasn’t anything I could have changed.
“But you only start to forgive yourself when you know things are going to be OK. That is hopefully the case for Isla.”