An Essay About Running Written by a Cancer Survivor
I love the trail; I love the soft surface, the smell of the shale, the high ancient cliffs that rise above it. I love how the river changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes severely, as though it were a living thing. I find a certain thrill when I run next to the river when it is high and rushing like a torrent, but I also enjoy it when the water level is low and the river moves sluggishly too. I even enjoy running under the two bridges that span it. One bridge is old, white, stately. The other is a highway bridge, a pale blue-green, functional but not beautiful. I always sprint under the bridges, the sound of traffic far overhead urging me not to dally.
I’ve had good, glorious days on this trail. I’ve also had terrible days that I would as soon forget. You see, this is where I not only run, this is where I find solace, where I go when I need to escape.
One of the very worst days: the day I was diagnosed with cancer. It was Valentine’s Day and Cleveland was buried in a snow so significant that even the courts were closed. I don’t remember much about that day, that day everything changed, what and how I exactly felt, but I do remember going out running, out on my trail that was covered with a thick and heavy white blanket of two feet of snow. I did not get very far (snow is very difficult to run through), but I can remember standing about a mile out, my breath appearing as thick clouds of white steam in the bitter air, and saying out loud, “Why me?!?” When it snows, the world becomes very silent and still. And so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when there was no answer.
The next week was a whirlwind of tests. PET scan, MUGA scan, pulmonary function test. There was simply no time to run on my trail. Every day for a week there was a test, and it all sort of blurred together. The entire diagnosis and chemo process even now is sort of fragmentary; I remember images and scenes, but most of it is just a hazy memory, sort of like a bad dream that you can kind of remember only terrifying bits and pieces of when you wake up. It is almost as though I did not actually go through it. It was almost as if I watched it from afar.
I didn’t know if I was going to be able to run while doing chemo. I had asked my doctor at the initial visit — the same visit where he pulled out a tape measure to figure out just how large my abdominal mass was (I was not offended, actually thought it almost absurd) — if I could keep running and he said, sure if I felt like it. I could tell he didn’t think I’d feel like it.
I knew, though, if I was going to survive, I’d have to keep running. I knew it instinctively. It was as though running was as essential as breathing. Life is nothing without passion; I have two real, true passions, Civil War history and running. Those two things make life worth living. And so I decided no matter what I was going to try and run even through chemo. The day before my first chemo, a surgeon was placing a port — a central line device used to spare your veins from being burned by the noxious chemicals and poisons — in my chest. My chest masses were so immense that the surgeon didn’t think he could manage to squeeze the port in amongst the enlarged lymph nodes. We should put it in your leg, he said. This would mean no running for the duration. I was staring at the daunting prospect of eight months of chemo. Eight months with no running? I said no way. I’d rather be burned inside out than not be able to run. The surgeon, a triathlete himself who I think understood why I needed to at least maintain the illusion that I was going to run my way through this mess, found a way to fit the little metal disk into my chest.
Chemo further depleted my blood of hemoglobin — that little iron-based protein that carries oxygen around your body. My counts had already been ravaged by cancer. The first week after chemo, I was dizzy and my heart raced. I could hear it when I tried to sleep at night, thudding in my ears. Still, I would go out and jog around the block a few times. Going out after chemo to run was very hard, particularly because it was very cold and the streets were covered in snow and ice. I stuck to my neighborhood. I was too dizzy to drive to my trail and far too weak to even think of attempting the large hills I’d have to run up and down to get there from my house. But eventually the snow melted. And so, amazingly, did my masses. My blood counts actually started to improve as the disease was knocked into submission. I went back to the trail. I watched it slowly come alive and turn green. I marveled at the little, delicate flowers that peppered the ground with white, pink, purple. I was blessed a few times to see a doe with a brand new, spindly legged fawn, still covered in spots. The birds returned.
Spring eventually softened into summer. The air became warmer and thicker, the days much longer. And my trail became something like a tunnel cut through a jungle canopy, a ribbon of dirt through a mass of thick, bright greens.
Summer was rough. The thing about chemo is the drugs don’t just target the bad cells. No. Unfortunately, chemo is not a smart weapon, it does not know enough to make just a targeted attack on the bad cells that are dividing out of control. Chemo is a poison and it kills indiscriminately, targeting good cells and bad ones alike. Chemo therefore causes lots of collateral damage: to your hair, to the lining of your stomach, to your skin. It can cause so much other damage — even occasionally other cancers, a future leukemia is a possibility for Hodgkin’s survivors, for example — that you end up with the equivalent of a Pyrrhic victory. Although I was lucky to keep most of my hair (which I feared was likely as doomed as Custer’s men at the Little Big Horn), my lungs took a real beating from the drug Bleomycin. Bleomycin is the least effective of the four drugs used to treat Hodgkin’s Disease. Ironically, it also causes the most problems. My right lung filled up with blood and pus from Bleo damage, and even after discontinuing the drug (which is very commonly done), I struggled for a long time to even walk up the steep stairs in my house without gasping for breath.
I’m not sure why I kept running. Or rather I should say kept trying to run because by this point I was no longer really running. I suppose I desperately wanted to cling to an essential piece of my identity. Chemo tends to rip away your identity and leave you in tatters and pieces — I had reached the point where I knew I could not practice law for much longer. My hair was thinning. I was losing weight. I had a tan from being outside so much, but my face was as white as a sheet. And swollen. My face was constantly puffy, as though I had just gone a few rounds in a fight. Psychologically, I was a mess — I was by turns depressed and then very angry. I had no business running, but I just couldn’t let go of it. It was the one activity I had that made me feel normal and alive and like I was still a part of the world.
(When you have cancer, you see, it seems like the entire world seems to keep going at it’s normal pace, while you are left behind. You cannot really live while undergoing chemo, you just try and exist. You try to make it from treatment to treatment. You try not to think too far ahead.)
Running requires a lot of breathing, of course, and since I couldn’t do that essential activity very well, it became a massive struggle. I spent a lot of time stopped on the side of the road or on the trail, bent over, grabbing my knees, wondering if my heart was going to leap out of my throat onto the ground in front of me. I looked — and felt — like a poser. I was just pretending to be a runner. I was once a runner. I wasn’t one now. I seriously wondered if I would ever be able to run again. All I could do now was jog at a ridiculously slow pace for a few minutes, then gasp for breath on the side of the trail.
For whatever reason, one morning during this dark phase. I decided I’d run for forty minutes — an easy amount for me. Twenty minutes out, twenty minutes back. Four miles or so. Give or take. Easy. No pressure. I’d done it a million times. Two minutes into the run, I was in trouble. My chest hurt, I was breathing heavily. So I slowed down. It felt like someone had put a very large stone on my chest. I slowed down some more. The entire right side of my chest burned every time I inhaled. It felt like I was sucking in volcanic air. I stumbled to a stop. It felt as though I had a spear stuck in the right side of my chest. I knelt on one knee, the other firmly planted on the dirt. I coughed and drops of crimson congealed into a black puddle in the dirt of my trail next to my left knee. The coughing released the pressure in my chest; I felt better.
Cancer had brought me literally to my knees.
Every time I pass that spot on the trail, my stomach tightens a little. It is a constant reminder of how bad things were. But it is also a reminder of how far I have come.
I refused to give up. The next day, stubborn as always, I was back out again on my trail, jogging a few yards, walking a few, jogging, walking, jogging. Although I had some pretty poor runs after that, I never coughed up blood again. Soon after that incident, my lungs started to heal from the Bleo assault, and I was able to start really running again. My pace gradually improved. The number of chemo treatments dwindled into the single digits. Then I could count them on one hand.
I finished chemo in September. Within a few weeks of chemo ending, I noticed that I was running fast and it felt easy. I also noticed that my trail started to change again. Now the days were getting noticeably shorter, the angle of the sun was changing, becoming lower in the sky. And soon my trail blossomed into a sea of bright golds and fiery crimsons. It was so beautiful, that it would take your breath away to see it. No picture, no poet could do it proper justice.
The trees gallantly held onto their brilliant leaves for a long time, but not long ago the wind knocked most of them down. Now the trail is dull, brown and gray. It gets dark very early. Daylight is at a premium. But although it may not be as beautiful as it is in other seasons, I still love it.
I’m back running the volume I was running when I was diagnosed. I feel strong as I fly down my favorite trail. I no longer struggle to shuffle down the path, I no longer have to stop every few yards to gasp. I run with my head up, confident.
I say I love to run … and I do. I guess it is funny to say you love to run. Enjoying this sport, running. Non-runners think runners are crazy. Insane. Those who don’t run, do not understand. They view running as punishment. Runners know this. We take a sort of twisted pride in the joke that our sport is every other sport’s punishment.
And at times, I admit, running seems like punishment. Some days, even the most dedicated among our tribe do not want to run. We usually do so anyway. Runners tend to be committed. To running, if nothing else. We will run laps around a parking lot if we have no other option. Or in place on a treadmill. In the driving rain. In the ice and snow. I’ll admit that there is a physically painful aspect to this sport: that hot, burning sensation in your lungs as you finish a hard 5K or stagger to the crest of a big hill, that overwhelming heaviness in your legs as the lactic acid builds up at the end of a hard track workout.
This is what non-runners think of running as. We know better. Oh sure. We know it is sometimes painful, that there are bad days. But then there are those glorious days, when you feel like you could run forever …
Oh, how I do love running. I love the feel of the wind in my hair, the steadiness of my breathing. The dull thud of running shoes against the packed dirt, the crunch of gravel. The occasional wildlife sightings, the ability to withdraw into one’s self. I love how the running endorphins enhance my senses and how I feel so alive at the end of a run. Running is freedom.
And yet I know this could all change; the cancer could come back. Every cancer survivor lives with this fear in the back of their mind. Relapse dangles over our heads like the Sword of Damocles. You try to drown it out with other activities and thoughts, but it is always there. But while that incessant whisper is part curse, it is also part blessing. I once took running for granted as something that would always be there. Now I know it can’t be taken for granted.
To me, I think the worst possible fate would be to arrive at the end of your life and to realize you have not lived. And that is why I love running: nothing makes me feel more alive. I hope I can run forever.
Every run is a gift. Run long, run strong.