The Hardest Mile

The Hardest Mile

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

The Hardest Mile

Success is a great healer.

Gertrude Atherton

With trembling fingers, I tie the running sneakers with a double bow as my heart races, breathing shallows and fingers fumble. One might think I was preparing for a marathon rather than one single, hopeful mile.

Slowly, I begin a stretching routine. I adjust the drawstring on my running pants, and they feel tight, a reminder of the fifteen pounds gained in as many months. I head for the door with trepidation. The brilliant rays of the sun welcome me; they caress my face and remind me of what I’ve been missing.

I recall my last run, eighteen months ago: It was a beautiful spring day—the kind that made me believe I could run forever. I remember vividly that I ran seven carefree miles along the rocky Atlantic coastline. I also remember the nickel-sized lump I found in my left breast while showering afterward. Mostly, I remember the panic . . . a crippling, paralyzing panic as I embarked on the hardest year of my life.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect a diagnosis of breast cancer. Not me, not at thirty-nine years old. After all, I had always been so careful. With no family history, I still carefully checked my breasts each month. At each yearly physical examination, I waited impatiently as my doctor gave me my usual pap smear, breast exam, blood pressure check and a variety of routine blood tests. I would grin and bear the yearly mammograms and secretly scoff at each negative result. After all, I was doing all the right things. I was delighted and a little proud each time my doctor commented on my strong, slow heart rate and my clear, healthy lungs, but after all, I’d been running for years on a regular basis—five to seven miles a day, five days a week.

How could I have breast cancer?

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of tests, bone scans and surgery. Running was out of the question. Even after the wide excision lumpectomy healed, the endless weeks of radiation left me exhausted and so badly burned that running was impossible. The news that I was to undergo a long series of aggressive chemotherapy treatments was an even bigger blow. My body did not tolerate the drugs well, even the antinausea medications, and my spirit was thinner than my hair.

Now and again, on “off weeks” from the rigorous chemo schedule, I would pull on my sneakers and attempt to run a little, but each time I reluctantly gave into a walk that left me feeling even more defeated and depressed. I stopped trying. I mourned for my lost health, as well as the loss of running, which had always replenished me physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Word of my illness spread like wildfire through the small town where I live. I kept up a smiling front for all. Only my husband was aware of my growing depression. By the grace of God and the love and support of good friends and family, I made it through the darkness of that tunnel. With over a year of treatment and a barrage of clean follow-up tests behind me, I was on the road to recovery. With my doctor’s okay, I began the long road back.

Bound and determined to succeed, I head up our driveway as the road welcomes me once again, and I meet it with a hesitant jog. Slowly, I head toward the old, familiar route. My breathing is labored, and beads of perspiration form on my brow; soon I feel the familiar pink flush color my face. I think how quickly I have lost my endurance and once again consider stopping, but I persevere.

Just moments into my run, I hear words of encouragement froma fellow runner, a man whose only link to me is the road we travel. “Good to see you again!” he says. “Don’t give up!”

A few folks drive by and give a hearty wave and “thumbs up” sign that helps me go on. Slowly, my confidence builds, and I approach the hill that leads me home. Now I know I can do it! I have conquered bigger hills—hills that I never thought possible. At the summit I hold my head high and round the corner to catch a glimpse of my house through the trees. I smile proudly: I did it. I ran a mile!

It has been thirteen years since my diagnosis. I still run, counting my blessings with each step.

Jacqueline M. Hickey

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