Lucía González Cortijo (third from the left) chairs La Vida en Rosa, a foundation that encourages women with cancer to do sports and fight for life. Photo: La Vida en Rosa Foundation.

Lucía González Cortijo, the oncologist who sees life in pink

González Cortijo has set up La Vida en Rosa, a foundation that gives emotional, physical and intellectual support to women with cancer. Her project began as a sporting group but soon expanded to other aspects of life.

In 2015, 20 women with cancer got together for the project Corre en Rosa (Run in Pink). Nowadays, there are ten times as many women, and the project has become a foundation, La Vida en Rosa (Life in Pink), which gives emotional, physical and intellectual support to women who are cancer patients or cancer survivors.

The foundation is chaired by Lucía González Cortijo (Madrid, 1972), head of the Breast Cancer and Gynaecologic Oncology Unit at Quirónsalud University Hospital Madrid. Lucía had the idea of motivating her patients through sports, getting them together so that they could share their experiences and comfort one another.

Lucía’s project, which began as a running group, grew into a foundation, where women come to change the way they see life. The idea is to fight cancer by strengthening not only women’s bodies but their minds as well.

- What can you tell us about this project?

- The foundation was established in July 2017 as a continuation of Corre en Rosa, the project I began in October 2015. We offered running training to women with cancer – not necessarily breast cancer, although most of them were breast cancer patients.

Most of my patients did not want to hear about working out. They have just had surgery or chemo, so most of them did not feel strong enough to start training. So I had the idea of setting up this group.

With the help of cardiologist and an instructor, Ramiro Matamoros, a hero of amateur sports, I designed a pilot project to see how it went. I had no idea how many patients would join us or what the results would be. The group was a success; it has been on for three years now.

- What are the benefits of regular physical activity for cancer patients?

- It objectively improves their quality of life, both physically (many lose the weight they have put up during treatment) and psychologically, not only for the exercise itself but also because they meet other people with similar experiences. Women who have just been diagnosed with cancer meet others who have been through it and are fine, and they realise they can beat the disease.

- Do you do other sports?

- In addition to running, we offer archery, which is quite helpful for women who have had their axillar lymph nodes removed. Some of them get lymphedema (their arms swell as a result of surgery) and bow vibration has been found to have a helpful drainage effect. It also strengthens the neck and back muscles, and reduces pain in the arm.

We have also conducted a fencing master class and we are having another soon. We also offer Pilates and yoga lessons every now and then. But, you know, one at a time…

- Your slogan is ‘Run pink, think pink, make pink’. Sport is just one of the foundation’s pillars, for you also give emotional and intellectual support, don’t you?

- Many women feel paralysed by cancer. So my idea was to set up a foundation that could help them in various ways. La Vida en Rosa gives physical, psychological, cultural, even spiritual support.

We have been around for a few months only, so we have a long way to go. But we have organised many activities so far: museum going, an evening at the opera, a book club, and many others.

Cancer is a life-changer. Some of my patients say in a way, they should thank the cancer for now they see life in a completely different way. The foundation is a lot of work, but it is highly rewarding.

- So the idea is to strengthen not only women’s bodies…

- The idea is that cancer should not bring life to a standstill. You can join the group during treatment or even with metastasis. Even if you cannot run, you can join us for a walk or do cultural activities, like visiting the Sorolla Museum.

We should debunk the myth that we are running for the patients. What we want is that they run themselves. They are the leading actresses. They need to know they can do what they want to do.

- La Vida en Rosa is an allusion to ‘La vie en rose’, the signature song by popular French singer Édith Piaf. It is a song about love and hope, and these are feelings you can encourage in your patients.

- Exactly. We have been working on the cultural side for the past year: museum visits, painting workshops, culinary activities, fencing… We have done a lot of things, really. I cannot understand how we have found the time to do them all (she laughs).

- How many women have joined the project so far?

- We have almost 200 runners and about 70 foundation members, who pay a small annual fee to engage in all the activities. You can also join the running group or the activities without being a member, though. Our programme is open to all women.

- What can you tell us about your upcoming activities?

- Right now, we are working on a mentoring programme with senior managers for women who have had cancer- or treatment-related issues at the workplace.

They are women with senior positions in leading Spanish companies, but the programme is open to all. They discuss with their mentor their concerns about when and how to re-enter the labour market, whether to find a new job, and so on.