Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why a Cancer Survivor Runs

My friend Leah just completed her first 5K despite a slew of health-related reasons it should have been impossible. Read her awesome 2-part post about running her first race, and what drove her to do it. It brought tears to my eyes, thanks Leah!
Read it here:
For part 1, scroll down and read up.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Full Circle

I recently wrote about the opportunity to share my cancer experience in a more public way. Last night, in our nation's capital, I stood in front of a room of people, cameras flashing, film rolling, and I listened as words I wrote about my tumultuous relationship with cancer were read by a man named Tim Cook, who happens to be the Vice President of Lilly Oncology. I held my breath as he read these words- my words- "I held onto the hope I would pick up the pieces of myself when it was all over. But I couldn't. I kept my cancer a secret. Ultimately, I realized I needed to tell my story and wrote it all down; 150 pages later, I found I had untangled myself from cancer's grip. I said goodbye. Goodbye past, goodbye pain, goodbye cancer, I've won and that means you lose. I am finally free."
Then I took a deep breath and stepped forward to meet Mr. Cook at his podium, and while he presented me with a trophy, a piece of artwork I created nearly six months ago was unveiled. I can only describe the time I was on stage as one of those rare moments in which still images of one's life flashes before them; a full-circle moment. One in which it seems that in the blink of an eye, everything aligns, and suddenly all the things that made no sense for so long- all the pain, despair, struggle and fight- culminate, and it all miraculously makes perfect sense. That moment, the experience of sharing my story- my secret- in that way suddenly made the chaos cancer brought to my life make perfect sense. But there are no words for that.
What I felt in that moment is what Lilly Oncology on
Canvas is all about. the competition and subsequent two-year cross-country tour of artwork and accompanying narratives is an incredible program. It allows individuals touched by cancer to share their story, and the artwork and written words instill hope, understanding, and inspiration in anyone who has the privilege of experiencing them. I feel so blessed to have been one of the top three best-of-exhibition winners. I don't envy the judges, all of the 160 pieces on display in Union Station were outstanding. Here's to all the 6oo-plus participants, and a special thanks to all the amazing people from Lilly, TogoRun, and NCCS that I had the honor of spending time with while in Washington DC. I cannot thank you enough for the opportunity to share my story, and come full circle with cancer.
below is the narrative piece I submitted with my artwork (above) titled 'No Words'.

I was twenty-one when cancer disrupted my life. I was in college. I was in love. I was unstoppable. In the months following my diagnosis and treatment, I lost my hair, my invincibility, and the boy I thought I would marry. Through the year I spent undergoing treatment, I held on to the hope that I would pick up the pieces of myself when it was all over, that I might walk away unscathed. But when I finally was told I was better, that I should go and live my life, I couldn’t put things back together in any way that made sense, because nothing was the same. So as I graduated from college and got a job, I pretended to be normal. Cancer was a secret I kept from most of the people in my life. Eventually though, I began to realize how badly I needed to tell the story of my experience with cancer. I was compelled to write it all down because the burden of keeping the secret and carrying the memories became more than I could bear. One year, and one hundred fifty pages later, I found that I had finally untangled myself from cancer's grip.

When I was finished writing, I took a deep breath, a sigh of relief, really, and found that I could finally say goodbye. Although it was quite some time since I had been truly ill, it wasn’t until I finished telling my story that I was able to let it all go. What I realized after I wrote it all down was that I would never be the person I was before; I am now stronger, more self-assured, and have a perspective that allows me to balance my life in a way my same-age peers have not yet discovered. I don’t think it’s important for anyone else to read my words. They’re mine, and it was the act of writing them that freed me. With this idea in mind, I converted just a few of the storied contained in those one-hundred-fifty pages to a piece of artwork, but you don’t need to read the words, because they don’t really matter. What’s important is that through writing them, I finally said goodbye; goodbye past, goodbye pain, goodbye cancer. I've won, and that means that you lose. I am finally, free!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Does it Feel Like to Fly?

I wish I could fly. Probably because I have had a vivid recurring dream about it. I have had this dream throughout my whole life, but it visited me much more often when I was doing chemo. I slept a lot that year, and for whatever reason, I frequently would wake up and have a clear memory of the following dream:

I am in a field, usually green, but sometimes it is fall and the ground is cool, brown, and moist. My bare feet lift off the ground, and lighter than the air, I float upward and after rising to a staggering height, I then gently return to the ground, and when I feel the earth beneath me, I let myself fall until my knees nearly touch the earth, and then I push off and am weightless again. When I am in the air, I can propel myself forward, gliding and taking flight.

I never thought I would feel this while I was awake, but on Sunday, as I ran ten miles on narrow, winding country roads, the sky bluer than blue, a river rushing along beside me, for the first time, I felt like I was flying. I had already run eight miles, so maybe it was runner's high, or maybe it was exhaustion kicking in, or the fact that I couldn't really feel my legs anymore, but for the first time, I felt that if I looked down, my feet would not be hitting the ground. I felt like I was flying, and it was amazing.

I didn't know what it would feel like to run ten miles. Now I do, and it was incredible. Aside from feeling like I was flying, it was painful, exhausting, and frightening, but the magic of it far outweighed those things. It reminded me why I love running. I was sore later, but that didn't overshadow the magic of running farther than I ever had before. Just three days later, I found myself running eight hilly miles. Yesterday's run felt surprisingly easy, and I ran 9:15 miles the whole time without feeling out of breath. I didn't feel like I was flying, but it still made me feel amazing.

I don't think I have anything else to say, except that I am really looking forward to running 12 miles on Sunday, I don't know what it will be like, but I can't wait to find out.

Hope, love, run,
Marathon Girl

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Risks and Rewards

There are thirty-three days left until half-marathon race day. I knew things had been going too smoothly when last Sunday I ran eight miles without batting an eyelash. I drank a cocktail of 1/3 G2 Gatorade and 2/3 water. During the last two miles, I ate a few small pieces of Trader Joe's dried mango and by the time I arrived back home, I felt pretty awesome.

Flash forward to Tuesday. I worked all day and then ran the three miles I was scheduled to do. I felt so good, I decided to go to Pilates class afterward. Go me, right? Not so much. Wednesday morning, I woke up and discovered I could hardly walk because of a sharp pain in the arch of my right foot. Uh-oh. I spent the day stressing about how there was no way I would be able to do the six miles I was slated to run that afternoon. I spent the evening icing my foot, and swimming the time I would have spent running.

I continued to ice and rest, and miraculously, after just three days, the pain subsided and seems to be completely gone. I wasn't sure if I should run today. I had that I-don't-know-if-this-is-a-good-idea feeling in the pit of my stomach. I used to run in the opposite direction of anything that provoked that feeling.
Example: Between the ages of 8 and 12 I actually refused to ski on any trail more difficult than a beginner, despite being capable, because after a frightening accident, skiing gave me 'that feeling'. My family skied every weekend, and it took me four long years to get over it.

However, I actually hadn't had 'the feeling' in quite some time, but having it today reminded me of a more recent time I felt strongly that I wanted to run away.

Four months into chemo, I got glaucoma and went blind. It happened while I was far, far away from home and was terrifying. Once the cause was discovered, I was able to see within a few days. After recuperating for just over a week, I found myself returning to my college campus, and getting the address of the school at which I would complete the student teaching requirement I needed to fulfill to graduate. That's right- cancer goes to college. And if it wants to graduate on time, it also goes to an elementary school to student-teach. Before beginning officially, I had to go and visit the scool. The whole drive there, I wanted to turn around. Thanks to a 6-lane highway with a large median, I couldn't. But when I got there and met the teacher I would be working with, I had to fight with all I had not to run out of there. Mixing cancer and college just seemed like a really, really bad idea. But I did it. I stayed that day, and I went back five days a week for the next four months.

As much as I wanted to, I didn't run away. I have learned from repeatedly pushing through those awfully uncomfortable situations that if I don't bolt, there's a pretty good chance I'll be happy I took the risk. So when I found myself questioning whether I was ready to run today, I assessed the actual condition of my foot- it felt fine. So I put on my sneakers, color-coordinated my running apparel, and hit the street.

Since I'm writing this, clearly I survived. I was able to run. And it didn't hurt. As I've found to be the case more often than not, that I don't regret taking the risk. Tomorrow I will run 10 miles, the farthest I have ever run. Is it a risk? Yes. Do I feel a little nervous? Sure. I don't know if I can run ten miles, but I won't ever know if I don't try. What I do know is that I can ski black diamonds, and I graduated on time, despite cancer's efforts to derail that plan. So I know from those experiences that it will feel really, really good when I get back home, because whether or not I succeed, I will have taken the risk, and THAT is an accomplishment to be proud of.

Hope, Love, Run!
Marathon Girl