Vanessa Oshima is every bit an alumni success story. She’s got great qualifications, has held down high-level jobs with Nike and Coca Cola and now runs her own business Heart Data. Vanessa, who lives in Japan, is also the first Kiwi woman to complete the six major marathons: Tokyo, London, Berlin, New York, Boston and Chicago.
But it took more than qualifications (Bachelor of Social Sciences, 1992; Master of Management Studies with Distinction, 1995) and business acumen to gain the diminutive and self-confessed “not a natural runner” an international following with her #outruncancer movement. Vanessa knows how to keep a promise and that, coupled with an infectiously positive attitude, has touched people around the world, inspiring many to follow in her Nike-clad footsteps.
The promise she kept to former Matamata College classmate Greg O’Carroll, Hillary Programme Manager at the University of Waikato, to return to the University for an alumni speaker session was intrinsically linked to a promise made five years earlier to another fellow classmate, Caroline Steer. Reconnecting after many years through social media, Vanessa discovered her high school BFF had received a breast cancer diagnosis that had knocked her for six.
“I felt great after a run one day and posted about it on Facebook,” Vanessa says. “Caroline messaged me saying she was inspired by my status. She was mid-way through her first round of chemo and was feeling low. I said to her, ‘so me running inspired you? That’s easy, I’ll run every day until you’re done with cancer’.”
Vanessa promised she would run at least 5kms “every damn day” until Caroline was cancer free. Runs always had to be outside because, in Vanessa’s words, “Even if the weather is terrible you have to go outside. You don’t get to treadmill it with cancer.” Unwittingly, that promise committed her to more than five years pounding the pavement and would be the catalyst for creating the #outruncancer brand. It also changed the economics major’s relationship with numbers as she started tracking her running streak, alongside Caroline’s recovery, day by day.
After 1621 days running for Caroline and the Pink Ribbon, on 23 February 2017, Vanessa encountered what she calls her “ironic moment”. She was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. She rang Caroline after receiving the devastating news and her Hamilton-based bestie pulled on her running shoes to fulfil her own promise that if the tables were turned she would run for Vanessa.
Despite the inevitable lows of both women’s cancer treatment, their shared commitment to outrun cancer has had its perks. The renewed friendship with Caroline has gifted Vanessa an honorary nephew and kindred spirit in Caroline’s son Connor. According to his mum, the relationship is an important one: “Vanessa is more than an aunt to Connor – she’s a mentor, friend and role-model.”
The 20-year-old took up the cause three years ago and with over 1050 days clocked up, Connor’s preparing for the Tokyo Marathon which he plans to run next year alongside Vanessa. He aims to complete the six major marathons before he graduates with his Bachelor of Laws from, Vanessa’s alma mater, the University of Waikato.
The second-year student credits Vanessa for instilling the belief that attitude is the one thing you can choose. He chooses to live life to the fullest in honour of those still outrunning cancer and those who were caught.
“I’m grateful for the people in my life, I cherish every moment with them and do what I can to support them. Living a life in service of others is rewarding and really puts things into perspective,” Connor says.
Vanessa flew back to New Zealand in March this year to attend the Matamata College Centenary celebrations and kept her promise to return to the University. Almost a year to the day of her mastectomy surgery, Vanessa shared her story, learnings and plans for the future to a capacity crowd of Waikato Hillary scholars and alumni, friends and family.
With Caroline clear of cancer and Vanessa progressing well with her treatment, the pair have joined forces to tackle their next challenge. They’re in the process of registering #outruncancer as a charity, espousing the benefits of running with the goal to help cancer patients unlock the power within.
“It’s important to find the positives on this cancer journey that Caroline and I are on, You can choose your attitude. I can choose to let cancer beat me or I can choose to take it head on. I can choose to laugh, I can choose to cry – it’s completely up to me. One thing’s for sure: it’s going to teach me something every damn day.”
Check out the #outruncancer Facebook page
Join the campaign at outruncancer.net
Watch Vanessa’s alumni speaker session A marathon of learnings