I have never been a runner. I was athletic, if I were to be generous about it, but never a runner.
It wasn’t until after my cancer diagnosis that I decided to hit the pavement. As a 24-year-old nonsmoker, I never expected to receive a lung cancer diagnosis, nor did I expect all the things that were to follow in the next couple of months.
The doctors had told me close to a dozen reasons why I may have a collapsed lung, cancer being the last mentioned and the only one they didn’t do a deep dive into. My diagnosis came in January 2022 after a tumor found in my lung tested positive for cancer. I was warned of what this could be, but I was never warned about what to expect when one gets a diagnosis for a disease that could be “preventable.” Preventable is a funny word in my story. . . My whole life I learned that you had to smoke to get lung cancer. I never smoke, yet here I am.
My surgery was due for March 15, 2022. What was a wedge resection then turned into a lobectomy to remove the lower lobe of my right lung in a matter of weeks. Waking up in my hospital bed I was told the cancer had spread and they had to remove both middle and lower right lobes. I was 24 years old, never smoked, and now have two thirds of my right lung taken from me.
Everyone around me, from family to oncologist, had tried to warn me about what to expect in my new life. I had a long road to recovery and my new body needed to adjust. Despite the best efforts of my medical team to fill me in with details, I often left the hospital with more questions about the future, which has always remained unknown. One doctor told me that I would probably not be able to go upstairs in one go or walk a few miles without stopping to catch my breath. I was told I would never run a marathon, or even get my stamina back. We were looking at six months before I could really do anything.
Though not a runner, I was always active; hiking every weekend, kayaking, playing a variety of sports, and so on. I come from a family of athletes and long legs, legs that have crossed many finish lines.
Waking up to a tube in my chest and an intense amount of pain that even Dilaudid couldn’t cure, I forced myself to get up. Within 24 hours of my surgery, tube still attached, I walked the hospital wing hall, not once, not twice, but three times. Each time I passed another room it motivated me to get better and get out. I realized how different I was from the other patients on my floor. I was young. The only thing I had on my side was my age. I began getting up and walking farther and farther down the halls, including once to the other hospital wing and back. I was going to prove my body wrong. Six months wasn’t an option for me.
Once I got home, without thinking, I walked up the stairs to see my dog, with no help. No stops.
Each day I woke up and walked to the end of my street and back, three times a day. Walking is an overstatement—I shuffled. Soon I could go around the block. Then eventually a mile. In about two weeks I was walking miles a day, which slowly made me want to do what they told me I couldn’t: run.
Why was I running? Was I trying to outrun my cancer? Was it just being an angsty youngster? I don’t know, but to quote Forrest Gump, “if I was going anywhere I was running.” And in true Forrest function I went out one day for a walk and on the downhill, I ran it.
“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there,…”
I’ve made so many friends in the cancer community from all over the world through the internet and that’s where I heard about a local 5k for LungStrong by a fellow lung cancer thriver. Knowing I could now walk three miles and run a few downhills, I signed up. For the next two weeks, I tried running on some flat surfaces. As mentioned before, I was never a runner, but this felt different. This felt like I had a second chance in life and I needed to show myself, if not others, that anyone can do what they put their mind to and that cancer cannot stop you. It can limit you and it can complicate things, but it won’t stop you.
Seven weeks post lobectomy I got my racing bib, got myself to the finish line, and I ran. The race started uphill and ended uphill with a few thrown in between for good measure. I’d never raced before and didn’t know what to expect. I had no game plan, no pacing strategy, just run.
It was a mile in and I was behind a pack in front of me and ahead of a larger pack behind me. Was I doing good? Am I having a good time? Will my lung explode? Analyzing my head far too much and running up another hill, I felt my legs buckle and my lungs ache. “I should stop,” I thought, but I kept going.
Approaching the last hill, I could see no one in front of me and no one behind me. Was I on course? Then I turned a corner to see them rolling out the finisher ribbon. I had just won my first race. First place for women, 14th overall, but still a win. I set out to finish. I did not set out to come in first but breaking that ribbon meant breaking just a small piece of the stigma around lung cancer.
For weeks I didn’t think about another race. I didn’t think about running until I got an email from the founders of The White Ribbon Project, Heidi and Pierre Onda. They said they were flying to New Hampshire for a 5k in memory of a passing lung cancer fighter. I got a new pair of sneakers and decided the next morning I would break them in at this 5k.
Though I didn’t break any ribbons at this race, I did manage to run faster than my previous 5k and managed 4th female finisher at 22 minutes with some change.
My lungs aren’t what they used to be, but they are strong. I still struggle with chronic wheezing, constant inhaler taking, and inconsistent prednisone, but that won’t stop me from doing what so many told me I would never do.
I had been running on and off through the summer when I heard of the New Hampshire 10-miler race. Again, I signed up the night before with a new pair of sneakers and plenty of band-aids on hold for the blisters to come. I have never run 10 miles before, let alone race it; but I’m 24 and immortal, right? My generation “ will never die,” we “live forever.”
Not only did I finish the 10-mile uphill race, but I finished in the top ten in my division against those who have raced their whole lives. In the 1:19:41 time it took me to run, my lungs hurt and my legs ached. My side stitches from the lobectomy swelled up and screamed for ice, but I did it. My one lung and I did it. We were now runners.