Life by the Numbers: Kicking Ass With Cancer
As a female, my teenage years were consumed by numbers on the scale. Of course that never stopped me from eating sweet rolls with melted butter; I would follow that with four carrots as damage control. My mom was constantly on a diet. We were living in Hawaii when—mind you, she looked fantastic—she went on a diet of only carrots. Her hands turned orange, and she felt weak, but her eyesight improved.
Above Photo: Dobber Price
In 1974, my beautiful mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had just given birth to my little brother, Styles. She was at her post-delivery checkup when her doctors found the cancer. A week later she was having a radical mastectomy, which was followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She was heroic, so positive and full of grace. Over the next several years the cancer spread throughout her small frame, and we lived by the numbers: how many treatments, how long they lasted, and how much time between them. We played cards to escape the discomfort and the obvious. We would play for hours, and she never let us win. Seven years later she passed away. The cancer-hand won. My mom was 49 years young. I felt cheated. Who was going to tell me what comes next?
The running craze took hold of me in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. My brother and I ran our first 10K together. He cruised in at a quick 50 minutes; I arrived at 1:10. My first half marathon was completed in 1:48. When I’m running I always seem to be counting: a rhythmic sequence of one-two, one-two, one-two. This turns into a mantra of “faster, lighter, stronger, leaner—faster, lighter, stronger, leaner ….” This prepared me for an epic ascent of Mt. Shasta. I always use numbers to describe this: You begin the trek at 6300 feet, and the summit is at 14,162. It’s a vertical climb of 7862 feet. With food and water on your back, that takes about eight hours. The summit is pure magic. The reward? Skiing down 7800 feet of perfect, snow-covered slopes. It goes by too quickly.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September of 2005. My sons were the same age I was when I learned of my mom’s cancer. After surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, I was obsessed with the countdown: three more chemo treatments, five more weeks of radiation, one year out. Blood counts, days between treatments, minutes of puking, hours of pain, hours without puking or pain.
I came back strong. I got back to a life of skiing, yoga, aerobics, spinning, and running; I added road cycling. Could I do a century (100-mile race) on my bike? Ahh, more numbers. I’ve done several centuries and loved every counted mile. I rode in Italy with friends and counted distances in kilometers and beverages in liters.
Photo: Dobber Price
But running is my panacea. The XTerra 21K is a burly singletrack trail race held in September, amidst beautiful fall colors and crisp air. I finished my first in just over two hours, at a leisure pace that let me enjoy the scenery. I was excited to try again, so I cross-trained with cycling, weight-lifting, and agility training.
My boyfriend and I went on a hike with his cousins, an easy route with stunning scenery and perfect temperatures. Good recovery day, right? The XTerra half marathon was a month away, and I was feeling good. I was dropping weight like crazy, which led to faster pace times. I did feel exhausted, but assumed it was due to all of my training and early mornings. And I was experimenting with the paleo diet—more weight loss, faster speeds!
Toward the end of our hike I got an intense stomachache. My abdomen became distended. I thought it might be a gall bladder attack. When the pain was unbearable we went to the emergency room. After a CT scan of my abdomen, it turned out I was full of cancer. I was originally diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. That did not sound like a good number, because I’d never heard of a Stage V. The doctors performed a debulking surgery that lasted seven hours. They removed my ovaries, uterus, cervix, omentum, spleen, a part of my diaphragm, and a big section of my large intestine; they did a bowel resection and closed me up. I woke up to an incision from my pubic bone to my sternum. I can’t believe I forgot to count my staples.
A month later, in October 2010, I started chemotherapy. This was not close to as bad as the chemo I had received for the breast cancer. I was skiing again in January and finished with treatment the following month. That April I ran a half marathon and rode the Little Red Riding Hood century, which raises money for ovarian cancer. In September, I completed the XTerra half marathon with my two sons. They flew through the course, my youngest son taking a place on the podium, and I finished with a bloody knee and torn tights!
I had new numbers to watch; they call them CA-125. These numbers reflect activity, cancer cell parties. I got tested every three months. My numbers rose, and a CT scan revealed two tumors. I started chemo again. Six infusions three weeks apart, usually three- to four-hour sessions. The first three treatments showed some tumor shrinkage, but the last three were not as effective. My numbers started to rise again, and I got sicker with each treatment. I ended treatment in September 2012.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel: I felt much better after I ended treatment and resumed my trail running and biking. And finally ski season was here. It was a great winter for me. I skied almost every day. I ran a half marathon in the desert that spring with my friends. Although I was slow at 2:28, it was gorgeous and I finished with energy to spare.
That May I had the opportunity to hike Machu Picchu with friends. We hiked to 15,000 feet and camped in lush green valleys. We took five days to trek to this amazing site. Before the trip I decided to check on my CA-125. They had risen from 56 to 234. Those cells were having a ball. My doctor asked me to have a CT scan. I said that I would when I got back from Peru. Oh wait, I’d also planned a trip to Nashville. So, as you can see, I had no have time for cancer.
Finally I did get the scan, and those buggers are growing in and around my liver. I am living with cancer. It’s hard to believe, because I feel fantastic. I have no symptoms. I don’t hate my cancer; I love every cell in my body no matter how confused it might be. I have faith that everything will be perfect, whatever that looks like. I have stopped counting; I want to live while I’m alive.
Want to get involved in fighting women’s cancer? Brenda recommends the Hera Foundation.