She runs marathons topless (it's not what you think)
Having run a marathon 6 weeks (!!) after major cancer surgery, Louise Butcher then ran the London Marathon topless to raise awareness for breast cancer detection and the effects of a mastectomy.
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Having watched the London Marathon on television in 2021 from her home in north Devon in the UK, Louise Butcher thought she’d sign up for the ballot for a place in the race. She was successful.
Five months into training, however, she was diagnosed with breast cancer despite having had an all-clear from a mammogram just weeks earlier.
After finding a lump during a self-check in the shower, that clear mammogram meant her doctor wasn’t overly concerned but sent Louise to the breast clinic nonetheless. The resultant news was a shock to all.
A mastectomy was scheduled in June to physically remove the cancer. Marathon training was put on hold for the foreseeable.
Despite the surgery, Louise had a lingering feeling of not being able to move on with her life. Not only was the healthy breast a constant reminder of what she’d lost, but considering the cancer was initially missed by a mammogram, Louise had a nagging fear that it might not actually be healthy.
After much consultation - centered around Louise’s mental health - she underwent a second mastectomy eight weeks later.
The Route to Louise’s First Marathon
April: cancer diagnosis
June: first mastectomy
August: second mastectomy
October: 5h05m marathon
What a timeline.
Louise pushed to remove her second breast for her mental health, but then opted against reconstruction to avoid further invasive surgeries and - most importantly - to avoid the implants that might obscure future self-checks.
“Why would I want to do that to myself? Just to look normal in society under a shirt?”
That feeling intensified as she picked up on the stigma and sadness in society around having no breasts.
“I thought that I do marathons and I really need to get this out there. How? I'll just run the London Marathon topless.”
“It didn't feel weird - it felt like it needed doing. Even if there was a negative reaction, it would still do a lot of good because it would get people talking about it.”
She ran the London Marathon topless earlier this year (in 4h42m), but Louise has continued running without her shirt, battling the ongoing stigma and ignorance around breast cancer and mastectomy - and the associated views on femininity - by documenting her runs online.
“I just started doing it all the time because I felt like a hypocrite putting a top on. I've done the marathon topless! Why am I going to go and do my normal runs with a top on?”
Running as a coping mechanism
Louise first started running about eight years ago, after a miscarriage. She blamed herself after contracting a bacterial infection and losing the baby after 12 weeks. Her way of dealing with the health anxiety and germaphobia that followed was to run.
“My mental health was so bad. I'd had therapy, but the running really helped with the endorphins, and it just changed me. I could go out really anxious, then I'd come back a totally different person.”
As a man, the most difficult thing I have to do with this running newsletter is write about the things that Louise and Bethan Pritchard - who is running a marathon every month of 2023 to raise awareness of miscarriage and mental health (link below) - and the millions of other women like them all around the world go through.
Men suffer pain in these situations as well, of course, but we suffer a fragment of the pain that our partners are feeling. Empathy is difficult, but understanding is essential.
I write about these sensitive topics through the lens of running not only to further my understanding but also to bring into the conversations others who might not have lived these experiences.
Mental Health? Mental Strength
That central issue of mental health - a huge one as more and more research emerges extolling the virtues of running as a viable treatment for anxiety and depression - was vital for Louise as she went through her surgeries.
Interrupting a training regime because of injury is difficult enough with a simple muscle strain. Putting a marathon plan on hold for cancer surgery? I couldn’t imagine.
But you remember that timeline from the start of this article. Six weeks after her second mastectomy, Louise ran a marathon.
“When I had the first surgery, I was still going to do that marathon. That's what kept me going. That focus was there. I knew I had to keep running for my mental health.”
“It took about a week to get up and moving around outside. Then a little bit of a fast walk and then a jog. I was running again in three weeks.”
“I still can't understand how I did a marathon six weeks after surgery.”
“By then, all my family and friends just thought, ‘She's gone a bit mad. We'll just let her get on with it.’”
What advice do you have for someone undergoing a mastectomy?
“If you think you won't be able to get back to it for years afterwards, that's not true. If they were a runner to start with, get back straight into it. I think running is a reason why I healed so quickly. When you're running all your circulation is going to help heal those scars.
“But if you are going to run, do it slowly and really carefully. You’ll be sore and you've got no core, so you're not going to be off doing sprints. Your body will tell you when you’re doing too much.”
Determined to find every silver lining in her situation, Louise speaks of the ability to buy brighter clothes made for teens, rather than the boring selection made available for 50-year-old women, and the ability to wear backless dresses without needing a strapless bra now.
She doesn’t make use of any shirt to run in now, of course. Running without a shirt on is one of the things that men are freely able to do, whereas the faintest glimmer of a female nipple bears untold scrutiny.
Beach? Only men can stroll around in just their trunks. Instagram post? Deleted with a 30-day ban sent direct from Mark Zuckerberg’s inbox. Feeding your child? Be sure to throw a blanket over the top, love.
While providing a confusing-to-many alternative to everyday sexism has proven effective, running topless is just the blunt instrument Louise is using to get a much more nuanced message across.
How does the attention you get by running topless raise awareness?
“A picture doesn't tell the whole story, and I think a marathon is real life - you struggle through it, you're having a hard time.”
“You can also see the positives of someone who's gone through a mastectomy. She's running the marathon. She's fit, she's healthy, she's happy, she's doing normal things. She's not sat in a room depressed.”
“The videos I post on TikTok have humor. They’re showing I'm still the same person I was. Just because I haven't got these things flopping around when I'm running. You do lose your identity. You do lose a part of yourself.”
After having her mastectomy, Louise went online to see what life looked like. She couldn’t find anyone else running like she did. She became determined to be the best example possible for others.
“The running has actually helped me to become something better than I was when I had breasts.”
“Now? I'm a marathon runner. I wasn't a marathon runner before.”