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If you can fill the unforgiving minute ... with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run ... Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
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Monthly Archives: June 2009
I live near the Rocky River Valley -- a beautiful oasis of emerald in a sea of gray and tan concrete. Surrounded by suburbs and the airport, bisected by several tall bridges that span its length, the river runs like a thick brown ribbon through a reservation of green laced with trails and bounded on each side by the 360 million year old brown earthen shale cliffs that rise 150 feet like silent specters. This is my home running turf, the place I feel like I most belong in the whole wide and beautiful world. If I’m not in my office, and I’m not at home, I’m most likely to be found here.
I was here this morning in the pre-dawn darkness, underneath a sky where the stars hung like bright white diamonds against an inky sky. After a few days of sub par runs on grudging, tired, and reluctant legs, a long session with the Stick had yielded good results -- fresh legs with more than just a hint of dash and vigor. I moved out the door with alacrity, my energy fueled by the coolness that had followed after several days of warmth and that sort of dense summer humidity that you can almost feel pressing down on you.
There are some days when it is just a good day to be a runner. None of the demons that often haunt me were present. A good day to be a runner, indeed.
I was going long today, and so I was able to witness the sky gradually lighten and the stars begin to fade away. It began to progressively lighten, first at the horizon, those stars fading first as the sky gradually became brighter and the stars faded away to be seen again tomorrow. Gradually, the sun came up and before long it was plenty light enough to see.
A long run will often slowly but irresistibly take the steam out of your step, and so it was with me today. The fatigue creeps in little by little, sort of like how the waves of the tide lap at and slowly and irresistibly erode the sands of a beach. It happens so slowly you almost don’t realize it until suddenly you find yourself thinking, “man, I’m really tired.”
I live on top of the valley; I start my runs with the exuberance of a screaming downhill -- slightly out of control, a little bit like a runaway freight train screaming down the tracks. But what goes down must come back up. And it was now time to go back up the hill. In the long early morning shadows and underneath the tall canopy of leafy mature trees, it was still fairly dark at the bottom. This is a long hill, the type that is too steep to go straight up, so it instead winds around like a snake, climbing all the while. The fatigue had crept in far enough to gain a foothold, so that it felt like a really long climb to the top.
When running becomes tough, I tend to disassociate, to think about other things. I fix my eyes straight ahead and I concentrate on taking it one step at a time if necessary. And so I started my climb up the hill and out of the Valley. Looking for something to think about, I glanced down at my watch to check the time and noticed the date: June 29. It is almost the end of June. The realization then hit me that I’m stepping ever closer, day by day to the end of September and a time that it sometimes seemed like it would never, ever come ...
I love summer and I would never wish it away … Except this year. I had my last chemotherapy session on September 21, 2007. With the kind of cancer that I had, if you can make it two years in remission (dated from the last chemotherapy session), then victory isn’t assured, but the relapse rate starts to plunge -- dropping off as though off the side of a high cliff.
It was at that moment, fighting through a veil of fatigue and trying to haul myself up the hill, I suddenly appreciated how much my journey through cancer is just like running up this hill I run up nearly every day. The darkness at the bottom, and then a slow and winding climb, with no sight of the finish line at the top. There were the cracks of light through the trees, just as there was the occasional piece of positive news in the daze of a world that I felt I had no control of.
And then, suddenly, without even knowing it, I came around the last curve and I could see the top of the hill, the final crest, the early morning sunlight filtering through the trees, bathing the pavement in light. For a moment I was blinded by the bright glare, but then my eyes adjusted to the scene: A sort of proverbial yellow brick road -- sparkling, bright, glittering, as though someone had dropped thousands of gold coins on a road leading up towards heaven. Suddenly I felt the energy return. I sprinted on newly found strength to the top.
It will be just a mere eighty-five days till I crest the biggest and toughest and gnarliest hill of my life. From the very bottom in the cold darkness of the winter of 2006-2007 when I was diagnosed with cancer, through the up hill slog through endless months of toxic chemotherapy, through the mixture of dread, fear, and hope that constitutes the fragility of remission … The end of the precipitous climb is now within sight. From there, the road continues for another three years towards the five year mark and hopefully the wonderful pronouncement of cure, but it is a downhill road from the two year point. I’ve now rounded that final corner of the big hill, and I can see the bright light at the top. It’s so dazzling -- so full of hope, and promise, and days yet to come, that I still can’t look at it, still can’t quite imagine being there. But I can taste it, almost reach out and touch it. Eighty-five days. I hate to wish away the summer. But I almost can’t wait.
I’m a rarity: a survivor of very advanced stage cancer. I was diagnosed late for the same reason many people my age are diagnosed late: lack of good health insurance. I knew for almost two years that something was wrong, but even though I had health insurance the huge deductible was a pretty persuasive reason to try and self-diagnose on the internet and to engage in delusions that nothing could really be wrong. After all, I’m a runner. You know, a healthy, fit person. We don’t get cancer. Or at least we’re not supposed to get cancer. Sadly, runners do get cancer. Unexplained symptoms like a cough that lingers or a decrease in your ability to run that you can’t explain … those need to be checked out. Consider the lecture over.
Very few kinds of cancer are curable once they begin to spread through the body. Lymphomas like Hodgkin’s Disease happen to be one of the few kinds that can be cured at even what appear to be the last stages of the disease. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of how fortunate I was.
Cancer is the disease of the zombie cells -- marauding fast-dividers who refuse to die like normal cells and left unchecked slowly consume the host. Hodgkin’s Disease is a cancer of the B-cell lymphocytes, and accordingly, can be properly classified as a blood cancer. That is one reason why it is so sensitive to chemotherapy. However, unlike leukemias, in Hodgkin’s Disease, these B-cell lymphocytes tend to collect in the lymph nodes, forming masses. In the summer of 2006, one of those masses in my chest began to effect the nerve that runs down my right shoulder, elbow, and into my wrist and hand. I began to first experience some numbness, which progressed to the limb feeling cold. The discomfort slowly swelled into outright pain. By the end of the year, my entire arm ached incessantly. You know that feeling when you strike your “funny bone” in you elbow? My arm felt like that all the time. The pain would throb and radiate through my shoulder, down my elbow, and even into my wrist and hand. I was gobbling Aleve during the day and taking double doses of Tylenol PM at night to sleep. It was this crushing and eventually overwhelming arm pain that ultimately drove me to get diagnosed. By the time I was finally diagnosed, I couldn’t sleep laying down anymore. My arm hurt too much, and when I would wake up in the morning my face would be puffy. So I had to sleep sitting up. The pain was so severe it was actually nauseating.
As I mentioned above, Hodgkin’s is a very chemo-sensitive cancer. Within days of the first treatment, my very visible abdominal mass had shrunk. And within a few more days, my arm started to feel much better and I could sleep laying down again. I still have lingering pain in my arm, though. It is much worse when it is cold.
Lately, my office has been a freezer. I don’t know why they have been running the air conditioner like it has been 95 out when it is only 70, but these decisions get made much higher up the food chain than me. To try and stay warm, I’ve resorted to wearing a winter hat, gloves, two longsleeve shirts, and a hooded sweat shirt over top of it all. My ridiculous layering is an attempt to keep the cold from effecting my arm. This week, it hasn’t worked very well. My arm has ached so badly that I’ve been compelled to leave the office to go outside to warm it back up.
I know it is the cold of the office that is triggering my pain. But try as vigorously as I can to ignore it and to rationalize it away, this pain disturbs me like nothing else. Logically, I know I have no other symptoms. There are none of the night sweats I used to wake up with every night. My chest doesn’t itch like crazy. (The Hodgkin’s Disease itch simply can not be described with words. It is an intense itch underneath the skin and no amount of scratching will stop it. I literally scratched till I bled and didn't even notice.) I don’t have a cough. I’m running the best I have since before I was diagnosed. It’s just the cold of my office. That’s it. Nothing is wrong.
And yet that right arm pain looms like a specter -- a hideous, haunting reminder of the gravity of the disease I have been diagnosed with, a stark and terrible demon that gnaws at my psyche. It fuels the fires of my deepest and darkest fears.
Struggle as I might, no amount of rationalization has ameliorated my distress this week. Usually when I feel fear beginning to grow -- starting as that cold feeling in the pit of my stomach -- I can silence the crescendo simply by thinking things through logically. The demons kept winning over logic this week.
Fortunately, I have running. I don’t know what I would do without running. After spending many long hours staring into the dark, I finally got up and put on my shoes. I slipped out the door into the cool and damp darkness. It rained last night and the although the air was heavy enough that you could almost reach out and cut it with a knife, the air had that sort of freshness you get after a good rain.
Prodded by my fears and worries, I started too fast. But soon my pace moderated. My pace and breathing began to even out. And I could almost feel the fear begin to fall away. The demons that had been plaguing me couldn't keep up. They tried to match strides with me, but I was too strong for them today. They fell back, farther and farther ....
I lost myself in my running.
I lost myself in the rhythm of my footsteps thudding on the dirt trail. I lost myself in the primal intake of breath in and out. I lost myself in that floating feeling, in the elusive groove where running feels effortless. I lost myself doing something timeless and eternal, something that the species was born and meant to do.
Running is so simple, and yet so freeing. Left behind was the dull ache in my elbow; it was swallowed up by the endorphins released by a thousands footfalls. Much more importantly, I could feel the gnawing fear recede and subside, as though washed away with the beads of sweat that formed on my body.
I left my house this morning plagued by doubts and by fears. I won’t say that dragon is slain for good. But I do know when I returned to my house, the cold grip of fear no longer dominated my thoughts; it had been scrubbed away and released, dissipating in the heavy morning air. In its place was a genuinely good feeling, a warm feeling.
The person who went out the door at 5:00 and came back in at 7:00 was a different person. I can truly say I went for a run this morning and I came back changed. For the better.
And that, I think, is the true power and beauty of our chosen sport. The ability to lose demons and to come back changed ... Not every sport offers that power. But I can say for certain running does.
If we can think of our lives as hourglasses filled with a set amount of sand that get flipped over when we’re born and begin to run and when the sand runs out that is the end, would you want to see how many particles of sand are left to run in your hourglass? Would you like to know how fast the sand is falling? Whether you have a lot of time left or just a little?
Sometimes I think I would. It would be both frightening and liberating at the same time.
I’m finding myself torn of late between, on the one hand, starting to maybe, hopefully, believe that there is a good chance that I am cured of cancer, and between on the other hand that cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, that nagging voice in the back of my brain that reminds me it could come back at any time, especially for someone like me who had such an ugly case.
It even infects my running – at the same time that I’m overjoyed and liberated by the fact that at least lately running has seemed an effortless task, that the miles tick off one by one with a new-found, miraculous ease, doubt crawls into my thoughts and into my running. Maybe I, find myself thinking, I ought to go out and race every distance I possibly can, just in case I never can run like this again because it comes back. What if I can never run like this ever again? What if I never know what I could achieve because the sand suddenly starts to fall too fast again? The result is running too hard every day until it hurts to walk downstairs.
But I can’t escape it; of course, anyone can get struck by lightning, but having had cancer makes the possibility of being struck again a little more real. It is sort of like once you get struck, you get sentenced to have to carry around a metal baseball bat every time there’s a thunderstorm. (At least that’s sort of how it feels!)
It is easy to say go out and live your life like today is your last day, but in practice that’s really hard to do. Think about it – if you knew your days were numbered, would you go to work? Or would you spend your time with your family? Would you spend it doing chores? Or would you spend it doing activities you really enjoy? Would you eat healthy food? Or would you go out and eat anything and everything you wanted? Would you sit at home? Or would you try and travel somewhere far away that you’ve always wanted to go?
You see, there is something wonderful about living your life that way, but long-term it just isn’t practical. Life when it comes down to it is really hundreds of mundane tasks that you wouldn’t prefer to spend your time doing, but they really have to be done.
Part of my own personal struggle as a cancer survivor is trying to shift from the mindset of living every moment to the fullest and shifting back to doing what is boring and pointless in the major scheme of things. I certainly wouldn’t be working if I knew the sands were running out, for example, at least not doing what I’m currently doing (my job is just that – a job, not a calling and what I do really doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of the world).
There is, of course, really no way to get a feel for how much time might be left at the top of the hourglass. I mean, I guess I could go bother my oncologist for another PET scan and see if anything shows up that suggests time is running short RIGHT now, but I figure I already glow in the dark enough as is. And that only is a snapshot of the immediate now; it doesn’t say what might show up tomorrow.
Right now, I’m dealing with that internal struggle by carving out time in my day to do things I enjoy. For example, every morning I’m out at sunrise, running, and I’m TRYING not to run myself too hard and grind my legs into the ground. I spent lunch yesterday befriending and photographing a ring-billed gull. (A piece of wheat bread goes a long way in making friends, I’ve found.) Today, I downloaded a few new songs to my ipod and spent lunch out in the sun catching rays and listening to tunes. Most of the good things in life are simple, after all. Tomorrow I might have ice cream for lunch, who knows?
At least I'm thinking about lunch tomorrow. That's a step in the right direction!