Face of Flanders: Johan Swinnen


Leuven cancer specialist Johan Swinnen ran 2,400 kilometres in one month to pay tribute to his son and other cancer survivors

The Forrest Gump of Leuven

For most of us, running one marathon would be considered a heroic enough feat. Last week, Leuven cancer specialist Johan Swinnen arrived in the pilgrimage town of Santiago de Compostela in Spain having run no fewer than 2,400 kilometres. He had averaged two marathons a day for an entire month.

Swinnen, 51, is chair of KU Leuven’s department of oncology and vice-president of the Leuven Cancer Institute. In 2011, his own son was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Swinnen promised that if his son, Pieter, was alive in five years – the point at which the risk of recurrence is considered to be significantly reduced – he would run to Santiago in tribute to him and other cancer survivors.

Pieter is now 19, and Swinnen kept his promise. He carried with him on his run more than 500 letters from other patients and their loved ones – messages of support in his mission to raise awareness of the importance of cancer research.

“I will be carrying all those messages of anxiety and hope with me on the way,” he said before his departure. “The messages will give me strength at difficult moments. My run to Santiago is a symbol of the struggle cancer patients suffer every day. In fact, what I’m about to do is nothing in comparison to what they have to endure.”

Before he reached the end of his epic trek, Swinnen’s rucksack contained another 200 letters from well-wishers he ran into along the way.

Swinnen – who the papers are calling “Leuven’s Forrest Gump”, arrived last Friday in Santiago, 32 days after he took off from the Gasthuisberg campus. He was met by his wife and son.

Pieter Huyberechts, a reporter for Het Nieuwsblad, joined Swinnen for one day, and described the feeling: “My stomach wants to leap out of my body, and you could scrape a pot of salt from my face. Muscles I didn’t even know existed are sending out alarm signals, and I’ve been dreaming of a glass of wine for kilometres already.”

That was on day 23. “Come on, Pieter, we’re setting new boundaries,” replied Swinnen. “Try to enjoy it the way I do. Come, only 500 metres more.”

Photo: Rob Stevens/KU Leuven