Four years ago, Patrick Tonks could barely walk up a flight of stairs. Treatment for a rare form of cancer had left him so weak that he sometimes had to use a wheelchair.
This year, however, the fit and healthy 55-year-old celebrated four years of being in remission by taking part in the iconic Great North Run – joined by his wife and three children. For some of them, he admits, it was more of a challenge than for others.
Patrick, his wife Jill, and their three children Sam, 24, Annie, 21, and Molly, 17, all ran to raise money for the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust – the charity where Patrick has worked as Chief Executive since 2015. It is a cause close to Patrick’s heart, because he knows first hand the impact that having cancer can have on the entire family.
In March 2012, Patrick was diagnosed with cancer of the tonsil, a rare condition which his GP had never seen before. In fact it took several trips to the doctor and other healthcare professionals before the cancer was spotted because everyone, including Patrick, assumed that his persistent swollen glands were down to a virus or infection.
Within a few weeks of being diagnosed, Patrick, from Claygate, Surrey, had surgery to remove the tumour, his tonsil and the majority of his teeth on one side of his mouth. He then had eight weeks of chemotherapy at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, followed by six weeks of daily radiotherapy.
Patrick is now in remission and, earlier this year, his regular hospital check ups went down to twice yearly, but his experience and gruelling treatment had a profound effect on him.
He said: “I lost two and a half stone and I had real difficulty walking any distance at all. At one point I went to see my daughter take part in a local event and I had to go in a wheelchair as I didn’t have the strength to stand and watch her.
“I knew that I had to increase my strength, both physically and mentally, and it was during a discussion with my wife that I decided to set myself goals to motivate me. The first one was to run the London Marathon. It was a stupid idea because at that point I couldn’t even climb up a flight of stairs but running became a vital part of my recovery programme.”
Patrick adds: “I had never done any serious running before, I was overweight and I ate badly. But I worked for a charity and I wanted to thank them for how wonderful they had been while I was ill, so I decided to fundraise for them.”
A marathon effort
Patrick’s son Sam was so proud of his dad that he signed up for the marathon too and in 2014, they crossed the finish line together in just under five and a half hours. Patrick said: “Sam could have run it much quicker but he kept stopping and waiting for me so that we could finish together. It was a very special moment for me.”
Patrick continued with his training and now runs twice a week. Since he began running, four years ago, he has clocked over 4,000km according to his running app – or 1,000km a year. Last year he took part in the Great North Run for the first time with his daughter Annie.
But this year it is very much a family first, after Jill and all three children also applied for a place in the famous half marathon without telling him. Patrick admits he was stunned when he heard that all the Tonks would be taking part. He said: “My wife has never run in her life, not even as a child, and my youngest is a typical 17-year-old who doesn’t ‘do’ sport. It was a big challenge for them. But doing this with my whole family is quite amazing.”
Patrick added: “The Great North Run is an event very close to my heart as I grew up in the North East, close to the streets that we will be running along and my parents live a short distance away from the finish line, so there was a big family celebration afterwards.”
For some, training went better than others, but one thing is for sure, Patrick is proud of each and every member of his family.
He said: “Cancer impacts the family as much as it does the individual and part of the reason for doing this as a family is to recognise that we got through it together. Everyone’s experience of cancer is different but for me, it made me really appreciate those close to me and in particular my family.
“It also inspired me to apply for the role at the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust when I saw it advertised because I really wanted to help other families affected by cancer. We are all very proud to be fundraising for this fantastic charity, which does vital work to support families affected by a rare and aggressive form of eye cancer.”
Patrick added: “The last time the Olympics and Paralympics were held, I was at the lowest point in my life. This time I was preparing to return to my hometown with my entire family to take part in one of the best running events there is. Cancer made me stand back and look at things with a different set of eyes and I am very happy to be where I am.”
You can sponsor the Tonks family at www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Patrick-Tonks