[[Happy to return to the Running Through It series. Today, Stephanie, a New Orleans-based #motherrunner, who submitted this essay to us in early February; she has since hiked the Grand Canyon with her family. ]]
Yesterday, I got to ring the bell. For those of you who are not members of the Big C Club, ringing the bell to mark the end of active cancer treatment is a powerful moment. In my case, my indescribable husband and wonderful MD Anderson nurses gathered around while I tearfully read the inscription. (And hey, I just noticed it had references to running!):
Ring this bell
Three times well
Its toll to clearly say,
My treatment's done
This course is run
And I am on my way!
— Irve Le Moyne
It was surprisingly bittersweet. I was simultaneously thrilled to be leaving behind a year of frequent infusions, but nervous about a future without my golden immunotherapy medicine helping my body destroy any remaining cancer cells.
It took us 2 years, 4 surgeries, 17 immunotherapy infusions in a clinical trial, and innumerable visits to doctors, but I made it: From Stage III Melanoma to Cancer Free.
When I got the diagnosis, I was terrified. I had a young acquaintance who had died from melanoma, a sinister cancer (as they all absolutely are) that disguises itself as a protein to trick your body’s own immune system into leaving it alone so it can replicate on its merry way. She left a loving husband and beautiful young kids behind.
In spite of my fear, I needed to figure out a way to cope. This was a door that I had to go through no matter how much I didn’t want to. The radiologist who did my biopsy and had the unenviable task of telling my husband and I that I had metastatic cancer very compassionately told me, “Please don’t worry. Just take care of this.”
And, I am so, so thankful that is what my family, my friends, and tribe of doctors, nurses, office staff, and volunteers did.
I had three surgeries (one of which removed 22 lymph nodes and lasted 5 hours) at MD Anderson in Houston, which removed all the cancer. However, I was still at very high risk for recurrence, so I was nominated to participate in a clinical trial for an experimental use of a new immunotherapy drug called Pembrolizumab.
Immunotherapy drugs are epic breakthroughs in cancer research. Primarily funded through the Cancer Moonshots Initiative of President Obama’s Administration and led by Vice President Biden, immunotherapy drugs work in different ways. That said, their fundamental premise is the same: Teach the body’s own immune system to recognize cancer cells (which are geniuses at hiding) and destroy them. The goal is to have specifically targeted medicines to destroy cancer versus medicines that are less tailored and cause collateral damage to healthy cells.
I had one year of IV infusions every three weeks, along with countless tests. My husband and I would drive five hours from the New Orleans area to Houston on a Wedensday or Thursday night after work, eating Mediterranean takeout and listening to comedy podcasts. This was our version of date night.
Our boys would stay home with my mother-in-law and maintain their regular routine as much as possible. (Truth be told, though, I think they had to grow up a little too much over these two years.) We would return home late Friday night and then launch into lacrosse tournament-soccer tournament-birthday party-school project madness Saturday morning.
I ran through it all. I immediately got an AMR “Stay Strong” bracelet (thank you!), which I wore to every appointment – along with a lucky pair of earrings my sons and husband gave me.
In the beginning, I ran —often sobbing or numb—because I didn’t know what else to do. My mind whirled. I ran to leave my anxieties on the pavement and not pass them on to my kids. I ran for my own sanity.
I ran to dissipate my anger. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I lived a healthy life. I was a good person. I always helped people whenever I could. I tried my best to do the right thing. I made good choices. I had no family history of this disease. Why me?
I ran as an act of hope. I ran to savor beautiful moments in nature. I ran in cancer fundraisers and in AMR Strides fundraisers to help others, to connect, and to feel like I was actively doing more than wallowing in my own sorrow.
I ran to get stronger. To recover from surgeries and withstand all the tests and treatment. I ran because I always did and this wasn’t going to stop me. I ran to show my kids I was still Mom and I was still strong.
I ran because I could. I ran for all the people I met along my journey who would never have the chance to run—or ring the bell.
Sometimes I had to lie in bed on painkillers or walk, but mostly I ran.
Next week, my family and I will hike in and out of the Grand Canyon. I am so grateful and excited (and hope my running has kept me in shape enough for this)! It is time to experience one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is time to enjoy. It is time to celebrate.
P.S. I have to leave two tips.
1. BAMRs, please run covered and with sunscreen! I l use Alba Botanica Pure Lavender SPF 45. I used it in the Canyon, but we had sleet, snow, and rain most of the time, so I didn’t need the sunscreen so much. 🙂
2. Also, if you or someone else is facing cancer, this site helps you find clinical trials supported by the National Institute of Health.