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On April 15, exactly one year from the first recurrence, the scan showed "uptake" -- one of the words that cancer patients don't want to hear.
It means doctors are seeing "something" -- maybe scar tissue, maybe a reaction to the shots, perhaps more cancer. In my case, the uptake was in both the thyroid and melanoma sites. That meant it could be a simultaneous recurrence of both cancers. Every doctor I spoke to said that would be all but unbelievable. And yet suddenly possible.
The news came back a few days later. The good: I did not have both cancers again. And the bad: The melanoma was back.
A day later, I ran. It had become what I do, how I fight back, how I shake my fist and press forward despite feeling like an unseen enemy is always following, always chasing.
It was a local race, only five miles, and I finished. I knew, however, that my metaphoric run -- the one against an unseen enemy that just wouldn't go away -- was only gearing up.
During the Chicago Marathon last year, which was held in brutal heat, a young man dropped to his knees a half mile before the finish line. Another runner ran by him, stopped, took a few steps back and said something to him.
The first man struggled to his feet. Together, they ran to the finish line.
I still wonder what the runner said to the man who was down that inspired him to get back up. I could use some of that.
I began this story with a run, and I end it with one. But first I must tell you about what happened in between.
It is not a happy ending. But neither is it entirely bleak, and in that I find hope.
For me, the summer of 2008 was not a good one. From May to August, I did not run at all. Radiation therapy kneecapped me and a debilitating round of chemo made sure I stayed down. For the first time, I lost a significant amount of weight -- 15 pounds.
I now feel as if I know what it's like to be in a coma. I called in sick for four days -- something I never do -- and slept for 15 hours each day. Nothing I ate stayed down.
I was enveloped by my illness. It was controlling me. The fatigue was so intense, the sleep so deep that it was as if a chunk of my life was sucked away. I rose only to take a shower. One afternoon I tried to make tea and slept through the kettle's whistle. I awoke to the kettle burned dry to the stove and belching smoke. I had few conversations; that took too much energy. A trip to the grocery store was overwhelming.
One night around 5 p.m., as I was getting back in bed and closing the shades, I saw neighbors firing up their grills for a summer dinner. I felt as if I was slipping away from the world I knew. I would ask myself: Is this what it's like to die?
One recent day, I met with my doctors. They told me I looked frail. I felt frail. But I responded in a way that, by now, will probably not surprise you:
The morning I did, in August, was exactly three months after surgery and 19 days after my treatment ended.
What, I wondered, would happen? I felt slow and stiff. I felt thankfulness and I felt hope -- hope that I could do the run after all, hope that the drugs had worked and the cancer was gone.
I powered up my iPod. The same song came on as I had heard during that run last year -- a day that now feels as if it happened a lifetime ago. I listened to the lyrics, and they penetrated my brain:
"Won't be long now. Getting strong now. Gonna fly now."
My goal was to run a half-mile without stopping -- a small goal in the running world but a big one in the universe I now occupied. The one that mattered most.
I ran two miles. Yes, it took more than a half hour. Yes, it was difficult. But I expected it to be harder. And I didn't expect it to be quite so ... exhilarating. I was not shuffling around, not in a hospital bed or sick from drugs or closing the blinds at 5 p.m. and leaving the world behind. I was outside, and I was running.
I wish I could tell you that the surgery and the drugs worked. But I don't know yet if that's the case. I am setting smaller goals these days, in both my running and my life. My aspirations are more compact than they once were, but they still loom large. My reach, I hope, still exceeds my grasp.
I'd be lying if I told you my future wasn't cloudy. But aren't all futures? My two races are, today, being run in parallel fashion. I am racing against cancer and against my own clock. Under the most adverse of conditions, I am becoming a decent runner.
Few things unfold exactly as planned, it turns out. And now, though I am weakened, I am stronger, too. I can handle more, appreciate more, understand more about the world around me. I can cope with the unknown, too; I'm not happy about it, but I am capable.
And I fight. It's an old metaphor, but it's all I have. I'm fighting to become a runner and a healthy person, and giving up either fight is not an option. I may be in the back of the line for the moment, but I am running two races. I am a dedicated runner now, and I plan on finishing both.
Exactly as planned.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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