This post originally ran on Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin’s website. Click here for the original.
I was on my way to work one morning when a news story on the radio caught my attention. Apparently, a 70-year-old woman ran seven marathons in seven days on seven different continents. It made me wonder what she could possibly have been trying to run away from — this seemed like only logical explanation for someone trying to accomplish such an insane endeavor. After all, it was the underlying reason why I myself had recently tried a similar feat. Ok, well, my crazy goal was only a half-marathon, and I failed, so I guess there really isn’t any comparison. But running away is running away, isn’t it?
Sure, I shed a few tears as I hobbled to the curb just before hitting the one-mile mark of my half-marathon attempt. “I can’t do it!” I admitted, shaking my head at my husband in defeat. I squeezed my eyes shut as he squeezed me, and I told myself to “Suck it up, buttercup.” Life is full of disappointments, and sometimes you just don’t make it to the finish line.
I couldn’t do it.
This was the day that I’d trained so hard for, spending the last several weeks lacing up my sneakers and hitting the pavement before the sun did. My morning runs along the lakeshore path had consisted of suffering occasional mosquito bites and swallowing gnats along the way for extra protein, all with the intent to prove to myself that I could, in fact, do it.
But what’s so special about running a half-marathon, you ask? People do it all the time, you say? Well, yes. I mean, it’s true that there was nothing magical about the distance. But I’d recently been feeling like I had something to prove, and traveling 13.1 miles on my own two feet seemed like a great way to do it. “If you can do this,” I told myself, “it means that you are going to be OK.”
After all, I had been struggling for some time to find a space within myself and my life that finally felt OK. I was sick of feeling frustrated with the oppressive, imposing aftermath of my cancer diagnosis. I’d spent the better part of two years enduring an overwhelming barrage of treatments, growing more and more resentful with every less-than-ideal choice I felt forced to make. The last straw came with the recommendation to shut down my ovaries — a maintenance treatment that, to the dismay of my caring oncologist, I defiantly refused for several months. When I could no longer ignore the overwhelming case he gently, but persistently, presented at each follow-up visit (I am, after all, an evidence-based kind of gal), I finally relented.
I relented, and then I pouted like a child. Realizing that my ovaries had become a liability to me didn’t make it any easier to accept the consequences of suppressing their function. After giving in and beginning the monthly injections, I was looking for anything that might mitigate the myriad of miserable side-effects I warily anticipated. Running was cheap and easy to do, and I’d heard it was good for hot flashes, so what the heck? My fear of turning into a 30-something menopausal hot mess kept me motivated enough to stick to a routine, and eventually it felt like the one thing within my control in my otherwise out-of-control body.
The day I signed up for the half-marathon, I’d just pounded out a 7-mile run like it was a real piece of cake, and the endorphins must have gone to my head. “You’re crazy,” my dad said, simply and without hesitation, when I announced my plan to my parents. But it was too late; I’d sealed the deal with a hefty entrance fee and had visions of victorious social media-worthy selfies in my head. I’d already picked out my race-day outfit, and I was going to look damn good on the other side of that finish line, with the finisher’s medal around my neck. I figured I would post my pic online with some typical Millennial brouhaha, like #nicemorningforarun, and all would finally be right in my world.
In July, I hit it hard. Training became a game of mind over matter, and I was determined to win. It’s only in retrospect that I now realize my “what’s so hard about a half-marathon?” attitude was getting in the way of some important body-breakdown signals. Inevitably, my arrogant ambition finally got the reality check it deserved in the form of searing knee pain, which I could no longer ignore about half-way through my last (and longest) training run. Miles from home, I stopped and started a slow, painful, lopsided jog several times before finally surrendering to a pathetic limp. I considered calling my husband to come and get me, but decided instead to walk it off. With a couple weeks left until the race, my bubble of optimism regarding a successful completion was still afloat. The slow trek home was plenty of time to reassure myself that all I needed was some rest. And ice. And ibuprofen. And the can-do attitude that got me there in the first place.
In an attempt to heal, I opted to stay off my feet as much as possible for the last two weeks before the race. On the evening before the big event, I found myself struggling up the set of stairs to the entrance of the building that held the runners’ race-day packets. My measured, deliberate movements were easily overshadowed by the fit, athletic bodies of other participants swarming to stations spaced out by letters of the alphabet. When I opened my packet to find that I’d been assigned bib number 9-1-1, I hesitated. It could have been considered a bad omen, if I believed in that sort of thing. But as a rule, I’d always chosen personal agency over fate, and so I shrugged off what I perceived to be a purely coincidental happening, and I carefully descended the steps back down to my car. I had one more night of healing sleep ahead of me, and I didn’t plan to give up before I even started.
The next morning, my husband dropped me off a few blocks from the start of the race, with plans to cheer me on at various points along the running route. I was left alone to drift among a sea of strangers in the direction of the starting-line. Eventually I found myself herded into Corral D — my designated slot at the start, based on our self-reported minutes-per-mile. I stood nervously, my stomach aflutter with anticipation. I knew I was not at the top of my game, but some part of me still hoped that I could at least complete the stupid thing. After all, what kind of person doesn’t even TRY? There was NO WAY that I was going to let my body get in the way of proving to myself that my body could do it!
Unfortunately, my body had other plans. From the first step I took, any delusions I had of making it to the finish line were swiftly snuffed out by the now-familiar pain slicing down the inside of my left leg. With every strike on the pavement, I cursed what so clearly had been a really (ouch!) stupid (ouch!) idea (ow)!
I stuck close to the curb of the road, avoiding eye contact with the spectators at the sideline trying to cheer the throngs of runners on, and decided quickly that I would persevere only until my husband was in sight. Finally, just before the first mile marker, I caught a glimpse of him and bee-lined across the street, dragging my deflated ego behind me.
I couldn’t do it.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement; I was crushed. My stupid, cancer-creating body had failed to carry me across the stupid border between whatever it was that I was running from and wherever it was that I felt like I was supposed to be. It seemed silly to admit that I had expected to somehow find something, or feel something, completely different on the other side of the finish line; but I had no other excuse for pushing myself so hard. Did I really think that taking a lengthy jog around town was going to alter my reality? As we made our way back to the car, everything felt incomplete — it was like I was tossing my cancer baggage back into the trunk and hauling it home again.
Everyone — my husband, my parents, my friends — assured me that it was the committing part, the trying and the training part that counted most. Who cared about crossing the actual finish line? But I did — I cared! I wanted that victorious selfie, dammit! This race was supposed to mean something. If I could run a half-marathon, then I wasn’t broken. If I wasn’t broken, then I was surviving. If I was surviving, then I had moved on. If I’d moved on, then cancer couldn’t define me anymore ….
While going through treatment, I’d always looked at survivorship as a destination. It was an endpoint on a map, a place in which all would be well again if I could just find my way … but it’s pretty obvious to me now that I would not have found what I was looking for that day, even if I did, by some miracle, make it to the finish line. Life after cancer is a constant negotiation; it is a conscious process of reconciling who I used to be with who I am now. It is a continuous cycle of clarifying what can be controlled and what can’t; what can be explained and what can’t. It’s choosing acceptance for what is and what will be, instead of wishing for something different. Every day brings a complex interplay between worrying about recurrence, feeling ambivalent about my future, and pretending to be just like every other 33- year-old when I’m not. Survivorship is a process — I’m not going to wake up one day, or cross some finish line, and find that it’s over, and I’ve survived. I will be surviving for the rest of my life.
I am planning on putting my running shoes to use again this summer. I miss what it feels like to witness the sunrises along the lakeshore path. I want to pull the quiet weight of the world into my lungs, exhale, and repeat. I want to match the pounding of my heart in my chest with the pounding of my feet on the pavement. But this time, instead of running to or running from, I will just be running.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.