24 February 2011

The Road So Far

My cancer story and my running story are inextricably linked, and always have been. In 1998, a week after my 25th birthday, I found a lump in my neck that would—after ten weeks of inconclusive, increasingly invasive, and deeply annoying testing—ultimately be diagnosed as thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer differs from many other cancers in that chemotherapy is not used; treatment consists of surgery to remove the gland (which, needless to say, does a number on your metabolism and your hormone balance) and in my case a big old hunk of surrounding muscle, and ablation with radioactive iodine, which leaves you radioactive enough for a couple of days afterwards that apparently a patient once set off the radiation detectors at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel on his way home from the hospital (now that would be a story!)

My own narrative is, fortunately, somewhat less dramatic. My tumor was aggressive enough that I required two radiation treatments, six months apart—a procedure that both times left me bloated, exhausted, covered in very attractive sores, unable to gather enough saliva to spit, unable to eat, and even crankier than normal. So there I was, lying in bed feeling sorry for myself, a week after Christmas, unable to walk to the mailbox without needing a nap afterwards, when my phone rang. It was my sister in Chicago, telling me about a 5k fundraiser race that coincided with the first anniversary of my cancer surgery. She was flying home to run in it with our dad, and my mom had agreed to walk. She added in an innocent voice, “We’ve signed you up to run it with us….but you can walk if you want to.”

Did I mention she’s my older sister? Needless to say, I put on a pair of ancient sneakers and jogged to the mailbox and back. A whopping 0.6 miles. And, yes, promptly threw up. But eighteen weeks later I crossed the finish line of my first 5k ahead of both my sister and our parents. And thus endeth my life as a successful couch potato. Two years later, our oldest sister joined us as a walker of the same race, a mere two months after her own surgery for the same cancer.

On the fifth celebration of what we now call my “cancer-versary,” I was in Spokane, Washington, hauling my way up Doomsday Hill in their annual Bloomsday Run, a 12k race I’d wanted to do since my (decidedly non-running) days as a grad student in Spokane. And once again contemplating vomiting, if you must know. There's a reason they call it Doomsday Hill. I remained an on-again, off-again semi-runner until 2007, when something possessed me to sign up for the Marine Corps Marathon. Which something is sort of a whole separate, equally ridiculous story.

Anyway, since then I’ve run two other marathons (one in Spokane, and Marine Corps again last fall) as well as several half-marathons, and I just signed up for MCM 2011, despite spending the winter with a nagging back injury that has made running impossible. (Again, that's a whole 'nother post. Let's just say it involves a trip to the ER for being so bold as to attempt to put on my underwear, and a six-inch needle inserted into my spinal column last month.) The cancer’s been gone for fourteen years this April, and probably the best sign is that before typing that sentence I had to stop and count to make sure. It used to be the clock by which I counted everything. Now I count miles.

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