Work/life balance: RT Journal by Ellen Schaef

Ellen Schaef at the 2016 Polynesian Championships in Athletics
Ellen Schaef at the 2016 Polynesian Championships in Athletics

Every employer will ask you in an interview, “So, how do you manage your stress?” My response is always; well, I run. Everyone smiles and nods and ticks that question off but realistically, running makes me more stressed than anything else in my life. Running is so independent and personal, I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform which I know is silly as most people don’t know who I am and whether I am running well or not.

Until recently I was working full time at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre on a research project for patients who have Cancer of Unknown Primary which I have been at for the last 3 years. I’m a person who struggles to distance myself from the pain that surrounds me on a daily basis. Some people can shrug it off but I always see things in my patients that remind me of something that has happened in my life,and I feel very involved in their cancer journey. It makes it very important to me to have a good work/life balance as it is very easy to become overwhelmed with both work and running.

A crash course for those who don’t know much about cancer: When someone gets cancer they have to normally have a scan that shows all the places in the body that it is. If you’re lucky it’ll only be one place and usually easily treatable, if you’re not so lucky, it’ll be in more than one place (metastatic) and the doctors will treat only to extend your lifespan rather than cure. Regardless of where and how much, the doctors need a tissue sample (biopsy) to find out exactly what type of cancer it is and from what structure in that organ it has come from. In a normal situation, if a person has lung cancer for example and it spreads to their liver; the cancer cells in the liver will be lung cancer cells and so that patient will get a lung cancer chemotherapy to target their liver. In this case, the lung is their primary cancer and the liver is the metastasis or secondary.In the group of patients that I look after, the patients present with cancer but when a biopsy is taken the cancer cells have changed morphology so much that they no longer represent a primary site. This means that the doctors have to best guess at where the cancer may have started in order to prescribe a chemotherapy regime. This is a type of cancer is called Cancer of Unknown Primary and is the 5th biggest cancer killer in Australia with an average lifespan of only 6months from diagnosis.

Working with these people 40hours a week has its ups and downs. There are great times where the doctor ‘guesses’ right and the patient responds to chemo but there are also times when it gets quite depressing and you start seeing cancer everywhere you go. Adding this to training 6 days a week was getting very challenging. I felt like all I did was get up, work, run, eat, bed and repeat. I was always sick with various things and if I pushed myself to exhaustion in XCR races, I had to take a Mon-Wed off work a few times due to fevers and headaches. Turns out my blood sugar was getting crazy low and my body was making itself sick over it.

Ellen Schaef
Ellen Schaef: Photo by Athletics Victoria

The 15/16 season was a good one for me knocking 5secs off my 800m time to get to 2.07min. Being a New Zealand citizen the Commonwealth Games is on the potential horizon as there are not too many good 800m runners about. I decided that if I really want to give it a crack something has got to give, I can’t sustain doing what I’m doing and adding in extra training to try and achieve this goal as well. I made the decision to reduce my hours at work by 15 a week to facilitate the extra sessions that I need to do and to also look after my health better. I did this about a month ago and I have already noticed the difference. I have a great training group with Gregor Gojrzewski in Essendon and I enjoy going to training each day. When I arrive at training in the evening, I am not exhausted which means I can push that little bit harder. In the mornings, I get a couple of hours extra sleep than I normally would and that is massively aiding my recovery meaning that I can actually run twice a day some days. My fitness has improved greatly in a short space of time; I recently got an 80sec PB in the 5km to do a comfortable 17.25min.

Ellen Schaef after her win the Melbourne Marathon 5.7km run to raise money for Cancer of Unknown Primary
Ellen Schaef after her win in the Melbourne Marathon 5.7km run to raise money for Cancer of Unknown Primary

I am lucky in the fact that my work is very supportive of me chasing my goal and are allowing me the freedom to work the hours that I need to; I’m aware that not all employers are like this. I genuinely feel that my reduced hours at work are the reason behind my recent form, fingers crossed for a good 16/17 season.

On Sunday 16th October I competed in the Melbourne Marathon 5.7km run to raise money for Cancer of Unknown Primary. We are developing a new test that looks at patients RNA to try and find the patient’s primary site so that their treatment decision is better guided. Unfortunately, these things are expensive and we desperately need more money to make this test a reality. It was a very fast paced race but having the people who have already donated behind me I found the extra strength to hang on and kick in the last stretch to take the win. If you would like to donate to this cause you still can, it will remain open until November 16th and all money raised will go directly to Cancer of Unknown Primary research.

Follow the link below if you would like to go the donation page.

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