78. Running through Denial

78. Running through Denial

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Running through Denial

I ran and ran every day, and I acquired a sense of determination, this sense of spirit that I would never, never, give up, no matter what else happened.
 ~Wilma Rudolph

I ran my very first marathon in New York City in 2005. One week later I went into the hospital for a hysterectomy. What a difference a week makes!

My first question to the oncologist when he told me I needed surgery was “can it wait until after the marathon?” I was more than two-thirds of the way through my sixteen-week training program by then, and I just could not fathom all those miles accrued for nothing. When I look back at that time now, the marathon posed a huge distraction for me, and I desperately needed that. I could not face the diagnosis of cervical cancer, and I preferred to operate in denial. Don’t get me wrong… I was diligent about getting all of my tests and routinely following up with my doctor. I just never got my brain around the word “carcinoma” as a synonym for cancer. So while I was awaiting test results and being referred to an oncologist (another scary word to me), I continued to run. My training became an escape. And in that dark time, I received some good news; I could run the marathon and schedule the surgery afterwards.

It is funny how when you are dealing with a crisis, your definition of “good news” can change drastically. Two years earlier, my goal was to avoid a hysterectomy when my doctor first made the diagnosis of carcinoma in situ (the diagnosis that I somehow did not equate to cancer at the time). Luckily, my prayers were answered then, and I ended up having a less invasive surgery. Good news! But then a routine test came back abnormal in the fall of 2005, and I was faced with no other option. First, of course, I wanted to know if I was going to die. When the oncologist assured me I wouldn’t, all of a sudden a hysterectomy did not sound so bad.

I then wanted to know if I could continue my pursuit of the marathon — the race that represented so much to me, especially now that it was in jeopardy of being taken away. At some point during the training, the marathon takes on an importance that goes beyond running twenty to forty miles per week. It became a personal challenge to push my body to a limit that seemed crazy even to me, but somehow prove to myself in the process that I could accomplish this feat and do it despite my health crisis.

The training is brutal. I do not know how people run this race more than once. The first time you do not know what to expect: the toll it takes on your body and the obsession that overtakes your mind. For sixteen weeks, it is all you can think about, talk about and do! For me, this became my salvation. I could focus on running, not cancer, and it did not require any additional mental effort to pull that off. The training was so demanding that it naturally occupied both my brain and body. Even when I slept, I dreamt about running. I wanted to be prepared, and I was strict about following the training program exactly how it was written. I did not want to get injured, and I certainly wanted to finish the race running, not walking. So I ran every long run, and I choked down protein gels, and I read books about marathon training, and I bathed my sore muscles. And through it all, I reminded myself that all my hard work would be rewarded at the finish line.

Looking back now, I realize that I was living in denial. I had “tricked” my brain to block out all thoughts of cancer. I convinced myself that if I did not talk about it, it did not exist, and as a result, many people did not know what I was going through. I preferred it that way, which was very ironic because I am naturally gregarious and open. During this time, however, I became reserved and private. Cancer became sort of a taboo subject. Running dominated most conversations anyway, and it was certainly a more pleasant topic. Again, since it was my first marathon, every aspect of training for this race was interesting, exciting and worth sharing. I wanted to share, but only on my terms.

As brutal as the training was, the actual day of the marathon was magical. There was nothing like the feeling of running through New York City neighborhoods with thousands of spectators cheering and live music blaring. Rounding that turn beyond the Queensboro Bridge onto First Avenue at the 18-mile mark was the closest I have ever come to being a rock star! What a feeling to emerge from the long stretch of the bridge into the sunlight again and to see screaming “fans” packed ten deep on the sidewalk. I took every bit of that energy and harnessed it into my steely resolve to finish the race strong. I ran beside a 6’3” man dressed as Wonder Woman, complete with the wig and cape, for the last five miles. The funny thing about the marathon in New York City is plenty of people run it in outlandish costumes. Wonder Woman was one of the tamer ones — there was one runner dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, juggling throughout the race! Obviously everyone shows up on race day with his or her own agenda. I had mine too.

My finish line photo, with Wonder Woman right behind me, hangs on my wall now. I did it! I used to say that I admired people who ran marathons but that I never could. I proved myself wrong. I knew I could take that same determination into the operating room one week later and apply it to my recovery. And I still had a whole week to wear my medal and bask in the glory of my marathon experience. I learned a lot about myself in 2005. I turned forty, I got cancer, and I ran a marathon. Somehow I survived all three milestones with a little courage (and a lot of denial!) that I discovered along the way.

~Julie Bradford Brand

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