When Heather Duff received the news last spring that she was only the 19th person in the UK to be diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cervical cancer, it is fair to say her world was turned on its head.

 

She was 27 at the time, had just completed her first marathon and was engaged to be married. Matters weren't helped much by the fact that when she asked doctors about her chances of survival, she was told she should concentrate on "bucking the trend".

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One year and one almighty buck later, Mrs Duff found herself yesterday addressing 1200 women at Cancer Research UK's Race For Life event at Hopetoun House near Edinburgh, telling them her story and - the important bit - informing them that she is now in remission.

As the woman chosen to start the event, it fell to her to sound the airhorn which marked the beginning of the five and 10 kilometre races. Mrs Duff, now 28, completed the five kilometre circuit in a commendable 26 minutes and afterwards spoke about her roller coaster year and how life-changing, and ultimately life-affirming, it has been.

"It was really surreal," she said of the day in April last year when she was given the shattering news that the pelvic pain which had sent her to her GP a couple of months earlier was cancer. "I'm a very fit person. I work in sports development, I'd just run my first marathon, I've played hockey at national level and beforehand I almost felt I should have been immune to cancer. So when I got the diagnosis initially I was in complete shock. I never thought 'Why me?' I just couldn't believe it. But it's life's lottery. Some people just get cancer and there's nothing you can do."

Mrs Duff's treatment at Edinburgh's Western Infirmary began almost immediately and involved an intensive course of brachytherapy, chemotherapy and conventional radiotherapy. When she asked doctors what her chances of survival were, they were wary.

"My doctor said to me that I just had to buck the trend.Nothing was said directly. But they did say to my fiancé it's very rare for people with this sort of cancer to live beyond three years and their aim was just to reduce the size of the tumour.

"It was quite an aggressive form of treatment. It was very intense for six weeks and then luckily after that, in August, we found out that I was in remission. I'm quite a positive person and I found the whole thing obviously very challenging. But after it, I felt like the whole experience was very negative and I needed to find a positive within it, and I think that's what inspired me to do things like the Race For Life. I also started writing a blog."

Cheering her on yesterday was former fiancé Gordon, now her husband. A police sergeant in Edinburgh, he had come straight to the event from a night shift.

"Gordon proposed to me in May, a month after I was diagnosed," said Mrs Duff. "Again, because of what we'd been told about [life] expectations, we decided to get married within the year".

The date was set for April 11, almost a year to day since the diagnosis. The place was Loch Lomond. By the time it came around, however, Mrs Duff had already been given the best wedding present imaginable: a clean bill of health and her life back.

That said, she still has a list of 30 things she wants to do before she turns 30. "I don't call it a bucket list," she laughed, "but I'm slowly ticking things off.". The couple have just returned from honeymoon in Thailand and next year they plan to visit New York. And one of the must-dos which has already been fulfilled was at Mrs Duff's feet yesterday in the blustery West Lothian sunshine - her dog, Parsnip.

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