Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reflecting on Life and Death, Writing, Damn Cancer, and Jane Welzel

On August 31, Jane Welzel, a local runner who was a 5 time Olympic Trials marathon qualifier, and winner of many marathons and other events, along with being a well-loved and admired member of the Fort Collins running community, died from cancer.

She had only been diagnosed this spring, but she had a type of cancer that is often very advanced when it is detected and it was really too late to do much for it with the treatments that are available. From what those who were close to her have told me, she was very brave about the whole ordeal and faced it with a realistic attitude, despite the horrible pain and suffering she surely had toward the end of her life.

I have known Jane since 1990, but I didn't ever get to know her well. We ran into each other every couple of years at a local event or on the trails. She was always nice and we'd always chit chat briefly, and then go on about our respective runs. We had different friends and different interests. My husband and she were competing in road races in about the same time frame and I believe they traveled to several races together. I am not sure if she ever ran for Reebok like Dennis did, but Dennis knew her better than I did.

I remember an old friend of ours, Norm, who used to write for several of the local sports publications, interviewed her in 1989 or 1990. At the time, she was about 35, and she was probably at the peak of her running career. We lived on Mountain Avenue at the time, and I can remember him sitting in our living room, talking about Jane and not only how good of a runner she was, but how great of a person she was. He had interviewed lots of runners, a lot of elite runners, and Jane left a big impression on him as the person she was.

I really feel for the running community, those who did know her and loved her. She did a lot for the local runners in addition to putting on events like the Bacon Strip and Mountain Avenue Mile, she started the Tuesday night track group, organized speed workouts in the cemetery, and she provided a lot of support and inspiration for many local runners of all abilities.

It's a huge loss, and losses are not common among fellow runners, because the whole sport of running as we know it has only been around for 40 years or so. It's something that we will begin to face more often.

But it's hard to watch someone not even 60 years old, who was a runner and elite athlete and leader in the running community suddenly go from strong and fit and active to sick and withering away before our eyes.

The runners from the track group dedicated a bench to her at the CSU track called "Quada, Quada" because that is how she pronounced "quarter" in her strong Boston accent. They did it a few weeks ago, while she was still with us, and she was able to be there.

I am glad to see they have already done these things to honor her in life, and now that she is gone, she is being honored in other ways. I am sure that there will be more than one Jane Welzel memorial events in her honor, well-deserved.

I hope that the local runners who knew her will share their feelings with each other and do whatever they can to cope with the loss, because it's really hard for people to come to terms with the fact that she is gone, and from such a brutal disease. Yes, it can happen to anyone. It sounds like this type of cancer was a hereditary one, her brother died from it too.

Being a runner doesn't make you immune at all. Even if there is no family history, cancer is one of those things that at least a third of us, maybe half of us, will have to deal with someday. While 5-10% of cancers are hereditary, meaning passed down from one generation to the next, cancer is often a disease of aging, of genetics, meaning mutations in the DNA, and of numbers. And it presents itself in hundreds of different forms.

What is important is to honor the memory of Jane and what she meant to the running community here. She did the things that money can't buy...providing support and a venue for runners to do what they love, and also championing something she cared about, which happened to be eating disorders.

Most of the readers of this blog didn't know Jane, but I think a good way to honor Jane is to live your life as fully as possible. If there are things you dream of doing but have put off, no matter how old you are, do them. Do them now, or ASAP. Don't wait. Don't make excuses, because the opportunity might not be there someday.

Tonight I went to a local support group meeting, called Sharing the Cancer Journey, that I used to attend regularly when I was working at the hospital there. I used to go in order to listen to the patient's perspective, to understand what people wanted and needed. I learned more from listening to the people in that group than anything my nursing education or on-the-job training ever taught me. I hadn't been there in a long time, not once since I quit the hospital last fall, probably at least a year and half or two years.

The speaker tonight was leading a group activity on writing your story. He was encouraging people to write, because it is a difficult exercise to go back into your traumatic events and relive the details, but it can be very therapeutic and useful for passing along your legacy to future generations. Since I write all the time it was not anything new to me to do it, but I did learn from how the people in the group responded to it. Writing about difficult things is scary, it bring emotions to the surface and painful memories can come back in vivid forms.

But I have learned from years of writing and journaling that getting the toxic and painful feelings out is one of the most freeing and healing things you can do to purge those experiences and heal. Writing it all out, puke on paper, whatever you call it, freehand writing is powerful. I've been doing it again in the mornings to clear my mind of all the clutter I have because of the multiple projects, thoughts and ideas I have right now.

Writing helped me move through my feelings about leaving my old, toxic, evil nursing job. I knew I had arrived at a healing place when tonight I stopped by my old workplace and said hi to my old coworkers. I was able to walk through the hospital without any weird feelings or a sick feeling in my stomach like I used to get.

If you have something nagging at you, or troubling you, write it out. Get it out on paper, hand to pen to paper. Do it first thing in the morning, uninterrupted, for 15 or 30 minutes or as long as you can take.

I wrote tonight about the experience of finding out my sister had cancer. While it happened a while ago and I have processed it, this was the first time I have written it out, and it was therapeutic in a way I haven't experienced with that story.

The point is, don't take life for granted, just because you run doesn't mean you're immortal, and when you have pain in your life, purge it in whatever way you can, I recommend writing. Expressing what's on your mind, either on paper or verbally to someone you feel safe with, is the important thing. Don't hold it in.

That's all I have to say tonight.

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