About twenty-eight months ago, I walked out of a surgeon’s office numb from the news that my left sided abdominal mass was likely some form of liver cancer that had metastasized throughout my chest. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to guess what the prognosis is for something like that.
That's why I was thankful when my biopsy came back as classical Hodgkin’s Disease; Hodgkin’s Disease is considered a curable cancer.
Curable cancer does not equal easy road, however.
Almost exactly two years ago to this very day, I had the worst run of my entire life. Way worse than bugs and all that stuff I like to joke about here. One of the chemotherapy drugs used to treat my kind of cancer is called Bleomycin. You may have seen my references to it; I call it simply “Bleo.” If you're familiar with Lance Armstrong's story, Bleo is the drug they told him you don't want to take if you want to remain a world class cyclist. There's really no option in Hodgkin's Disease to avoid Bleo, though if you are one of the unlucky ones to develop lung problems they stop giving it and it doesn't seem to effect prognosis. One wonders if it could be done away with altogether … But with Hodgkin’s, the cure rates are so good with the ABVD regimen, no one really wants to be the guinea pig.
Anyway, I started developing lung problems in mid-May. Doctor discontinued the Bleo, but things continued to deteriorate. I had been running pretty well up to that point, and then I sort of ran into this wall where I could barely run at all. I would run along the trail and need to stop and grab my knees and gasp. I couldn't walk up my stairs without getting out of breath. I felt like a poser. Seeing a runner flying by was like having a knife twisted into my gut because I couldn't run more than like five minutes at a time.
I've never been anything even close to an elite runner, but prior to starting down the whole road to cancer in 2005, I was a pretty good runner. I was appalled that I couldn't even run a full mile without stopping. I expected chemo to be hard, and that I would slow down, but not THIS.
That morning I was totally ticked off at myself and decided I was going to MAKE myself run four continuous miles. It was a warm morning and humid and I was drenched within a couple minutes. I made it about 7-8 minutes into the run and my lungs started to burn. I forced myself to keep running. My chest got really tight and I had this searing pain in my right side, but I was determined to force my body to do what my heart wanted. I began to taste pennies ... I remember how I had a coach that used to joke that if you're tasting pennies then you're tasting death. I suddenly wondered if it wasn't really a joke, and then thought, you know what? I'm probably going to die right now and really I don't even care. Well, I didn't die, my body just finally couldn't go anymore and I sort of stumbled to a stop and onto my hands and knees. I ended up on my hands and knees spitting up blood.
Of course another runner has to happen by and I am pretty sure he thought I was tossing breakfast, because he shot me a sort of "I feel for you" glance but he didn't stop.
I just kept coughing and spitting. Once the worst was over, I walked back up the trail -- I think I had only run out about a mile or so -- and I remember being glad I had sunglasses on because I was crying because I was just so mad about and at everything. I remember I passed someone walking back and they looked at me and my shirt had a bloodstain on it from where I wiped my mouth. I didn't make eye contact.
I ended up sitting in my car a long time with my head on the steering wheel. I should have gone to the emergency room, but I was afraid if my oncologist found out what happened, he would have thrown me in the hospital for the duration. He knows I'm a stubborn and hard-headed young lady and would be out running again the next day, even if he tried something so futile as forbidding me to run. (My oncologist is a smart guy and a runner who would never forbid running even if it was a good idea because he knows I wouldn't listen. haha.) So I never told him what happened and I just went home and threw away my shirt, and laid in bed the whole day. I thought about calling and leaving a message that I was not coming back for anymore chemo. Running was my one little shred of my old self I had left and it seemed so horribly unfair that running was being taken away too. I thought this is it ... I'm never going to run again, my lungs are too badly ruined.
I've had two days where I felt like I hit rock bottom. One was when I was told my tumor was probably some sort of liver cancer that had spread through my chest -- that, to steal my oncologist's phrase, they were ready to fit me for a pine box. Fortunately, the surgeon was wrong and it was something treatable. The other was this run. Fortunately, though, my running career was not ready for a pine box either. From there, things slowly improved. I was determined to keep running, so for awhile I ran like a beginner -- ran until I was out of breath then walked, then would run again. I will never forget how GOOD it felt to finish a full four mile run without needing to stop a couple weeks later when my lungs started to respond to the steroids. I felt like I was being given a second chance. I embraced it. I will never, never take running for granted again. Even when gnats fly up my nose, or its too hot, or too windy, or I don't feel "good." Being able to run is a gift.
My worst run was June 25, 2007. I continued to run through chemotherapy, finishing on September 21, 2007. I continued to slowly but surely improve, but there were still bad days. Every week or so, there would be one or two runs that would be a monumental struggle … There would be the ache in the chest and ragged breathing even at a slow pace. Slowly but surely, those bad runs where I struggle have become spaced further and further apart.
While I have enjoyed running post-treatment -- I think cancer made me love running even more passionately than I did before -- I had pretty much given up running fast again. Every time I would push the pace, I’d get that terrible, incessant ache in my chest. It didn’t feel right, and I was always afraid to press it. Or, I’d start training a little harder and I’d get sick with something strange -- for example last fall I was targeting a half marathon when I came down with a bad case of cellulitis around my eye. I’ve also had shingles twice.
But then my body surprised me. The last few weeks, I seemed to break through some sort of barrier. I’ve had some bad runs to be sure, but not as many. I decided to try my hand on Sunday at a 5K.
I’m not a particularly good 5K runner, but it’s the easiest distance to find to test yourself at so it has sort of been my post-cancer benchmark. Last spring, I ran this same race in 23:24. That was about an average time for me last year, and I figured a finish around the high 22s to low-mid 23s would continue. I would have honestly been happy if I never ran any faster than that.
Nope. This year: 21:56. Not a bad time for a woman recreational runner, let alone a woman who had cancer and runs with scarred lungs.
Two years ago to this day, I could barely run. And now? Wow. I am truly amazed. The course measured 3.12 with my Garmin, or I’d otherwise think it must have been a short course (same course as last year as well). I don’t know if it was a flukey one time performance or a breakthrough, but I am astounded.
I never thought in a million years I would run that fast again, not after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s -- I would have been happy just to be alive and jogging -- and certainly not after the lung problems.
All I can think to tell people is: NEVER GIVE UP. The human body must have astonishing healing powers that even science doesn’t quite understand.
If anyone out there is an athlete struggling through chemotherapy … I hope this gives you some hope. The body really can recover, if you give it time. Chemo is like struggling underwater, trying desperately to struggle and get back up to the surface. You do surface every so often and get a gasp of air, but then they knock you back under again with the next chemical assault. But sooner or later, you get to come up to the top and you get to stay there. Hopefully you get to stay above the water forever.
It's worth the struggle. There are times when I asked myself is it worth it ... It is.
NEVER GIVE UP!