Thursday, November 17, 2011
How lucky we runners are...
I see patients running their own personal ultramarathons every day, propelled by their inner drive, perseverance, courage, and will to live. They don’t know where the finish line is, but they give everything they have to the race.
Yet every day at work, a common theme I hear from patients who are in for the battle of their lives, and are as sick as they've ever been, is how much they have to be thankful for.
I see them for weeks or months, until they finish their chemotherapy. Often they have already had some type of surgery that alters their bodies, and they might have radiation too. It’s more than a full-time job for them. Not only do they average eighty medical appointments in the year after diagnosis, but the treatments leave them fatigued, sometimes nauseated, or with nerve damage to hands or feet making it difficult to walk or do fine motor tasks like buttoning their shirts. They can be vulnerable to falls, infection, or bleeding, and unable to concentrate.
No one can manage cancer alone, and not without community support. There are many other equally important needs that go along with cancer treatment, such as having to negotiate family responsibilities, employment and financial issues, and social relationships. None of these things go away when a person has cancer. And not everyone the person with cancer has to interact with is understanding or informed.
Even their families can fail to become educated, sometimes willfully. Sometimes it's because of fear, or sometimes a low educational level. Or they just don't want to know. They expect the person to come home from their treatment and go back to being themselves, to keep doing all the usual tasks at home, or at work, such as taking care of sick kids, doing the cooking, cleaning, and activities that can expose them to life-threatening complications. Imagine knowing your immune system is very weak and having to go into public places where people cough in your face, or don't wash their hands after using the bathroom.
For the cancer patient, all of this is like being on a treadmill that has no “off” switch. After treatment, if the cancer is gone, they can't just pick up where they left off. It’s not like coming back from a running injury. Cancer changes everything. Relationships and family dynamics are affected. The person needs to adjust to changes in a body altered from surgery or radiation damage. If there are lasting effects of the chemotherapy, like nerve damage, the person might not be able to drive. Repeat checkups and scans must be done for years to ensure the cancer has not come back. Nothing is guaranteed but hope.
I'm not writing this as a scare story to dramatize the effects of cancer treatment. This is reality. Some people have these side effects I've mentioned, some don't, and some have it worse than others. This is not all-inclusive, either. There are lots of things that happen along the way in treatment. One in three of us will be diagnosed with cancer, and the older we get, the more likely that is to happen. If cancer hasn't touched you or your family, or anyone you know, then you are in a rare category. Inform yourself, because eventually you will be touched by cancer, indirectly, or otherwise.
Restoring quality of life for the whole person who has been diagnosed with cancer is a challenge. The road back to wellness is a lot longer than the treatment itself. The support of this community in the form of a cancer center will ultimately shorten the distance back to wellness for those with cancer.
The greatest gift you can give is to do the best you can every day with what you have. If you can do something that has meaning for you, and helps someone else, you win the race. If you have your health now, then you already have a head start. Use it to your advantage, and reach beyond your own fitness, competitiveness, vanity, or whatever else is driving your running.
I look around and see so many overweight people everywhere. Even here in Colorado, where we have the optimal conditions for a variety of outdoor activities year-round, we have a growing problem. So many health problems stem from obesity and other unhealthy behaviors like sedentary lifestyles, smoking, overconsumption of alcohol, overexposure to the sun, unhealthy diets. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer are costly and a huge burden to all of us.
What is even worse is that so many children are overweight. They are getting a bad start in life when it comes to their health. They aren't active enough, they are exposed to TV advertising of sedentary games and junk food. Not enough of them ride their bikes or walk to school, and they don't play outside the way we did when we were kids.
Schools in our community did something extraordinary this past year to raise funds for the PVHS Cancer Center. Three elementary schools each held a wellness day where the kids ran and walked laps and played soccer. They were doing their best, being active, and turning their activity into a meaningful gift to their community, raising nearly $13,000 through pledges. One of these schools is in a neighborhood that has the lowest income in the city.
This holiday season, when many people are struggling to meet their basic needs, shopping for gifts is overwhelming, stressful, and financially challenging. One great gift idea is to give to a charity in someone else's name. Even a small gift makes a powerful statement.
My gift is my health and ability to run ultramarathons, when I use it to give something back to my community. I'm supporting the Cancer Center here, and making the Survivorship Center within it a reality for those in our community who will need it. Make running your gift this year, wrap it into something meaningful to you, to help people in your community.
If you are fortunate enough to know where your finish line is this year, find your own gift of activity, live it, and give it. Let your finish line be the start of your next adventure.