Real Life

Marathon runner Mel Brandon is back on track after a shock cancer diagnosis

With three children relying on her, inspirational marathoner Mel put a survival plan in motion
Hagen Hopkins

As a fit, healthy and vibrant single mum-of-three, marathon running star Mel Brandon initially shrugged it off when she detected a lump in her breast, only to be shaken to her core when several weeks later a biopsy confirmed breast cancer.

Feeling “sick to her stomach” and in a daze, the 2022 Rotorua Marathon winner remembers sitting in her car after finding out, trying desperately to process her thoughts.

“To be hit by the C-bomb was a huge shock,” admits Wellington-based Mel, 46, who was diagnosed early last year. “I didn’t think the lump would be anything much. I thought it would be benign. But as I was the age for regular mammograms, I thankfully decided to get it checked out.”

The marathon winner says “running has allowed me to better tackle life’s curveballs”.

Juggling her running schedule with life as a busy single mum had, however, taught Mel resilience. So it only took around 48 hours to shift “from panic mode into survival mode” for the challenge ahead.

“I thought, ‘I just need to stay alive for my three kids. I’ll do whatever it takes.’ I tried not to freak out. I just needed to put a survival plan in place.”

Mum to Eva, 16, Scarlet, 15, and Archie, 12, Mel first started engaging seriously with running following the breakdown of her 15-year marriage. With three young children at the time, she needed some time for herself, so at the age of 37, she re-started her childhood passion for running.

“Running was more like a coping mechanism for me initially,” she shares. “The chance to get in a good head space and to feel positive and resilient.”

Entering the Round-the-Bays race in Wellington, she was quickly bitten by the running bug. She stepped up her training, completed a couple more half marathons, before starting more structured training with the Wellington Scottish Athletics club.

In her forties, Mel has gone from strength to strength, developing into one of the country’s leading marathoners. Sometimes squeezing in training at 6am or 9pm at night, she admits to occasionally feeling guilty she is pursuing her running goals.

“It seems a little selfish, but when I’m at my fittest, I know I’m at my best in every other aspect of my life, whether that is as a parent or being more productive at work.”

A winner of the New Zealand marathon bronze medal in Christchurch in April, with a personal best time, Mel now faces a new fight following her cancer diagnosis just two months later.

Receiving huge support in her journey from friends, family and her children, Mel has tried to maintain her fitness levels, but the medication to keep a lid on the tumour has presented its challenges.

“As soon as I started taking the hormone-blocking drugs, I’d gone from near personal best half-marathon shape [at the Wellington half-marathon in June, a few days after the diagnosis] to barely being able to walk up a hill without huffing and puffing.”

Despite the seismic change to her fitness levels, Mel, who works as Head of People and Culture at Wētā Workshop, has maintained a daily fitness regime of alternating trail running and mountain biking after undergoing successful surgery in August. Having undergone a lumpectomy, Mel is currently undergoing 20 sessions of radiation but is looking to the future positively with running at the forefront of her mind.

“One implication of radiation treatment in this area is lung damage,” she explains. “I said to the doctor, ‘Is there anything that can be done to reduce the risk of lung damage because I need good lungs for running?’ So they tweaked the radiation treatment as much as possible while still aiming to be effective on the cancer area.”

Mel with her kids (from left) Scarlet, Eva and Archie.

Confident that she will be in remission this year, she says it’s a very treatable form of cancer, but warns other women to go for regular mammogram tests or, if they detect a lump, to seek immediate medical attention.

“I was incredibly lucky to detect it early,” she says. “If I hadn’t taken action, it could have spread to the lymph nodes. I credit my running for giving me perspective and making me more resilient. I’m in a good space and running has allowed me to better tackle life’s curveballs.

“It sounds clichéd, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I have a lot of love in my life through my kids and friends. Cancer has been super-challenging, but I’m grateful for my prognosis and knowing I’ll be tested every year for the rest of my life is reassuring.”

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