Exercise and It’s Relation To Health

April 3, 2005

LIVES

Running for My Life

By RONNI GORDON

While running the St. Patrick’s Day 10K in Holyoke, Mass., in 2003, I could hardly catch my breath. I finished the hilly course anyway, driven by my belief that if you don’t finish, you don’t deserve the race T-shirt. I nearly fainted at the end, and it had taken a little more than an hour, at least 10 minutes longer than I had ever run it.

I saw my doctor two days later. As a 48-year-old single mother of three, I figured that I was just run down and that there was probably a simple fix like iron supplements. Instead, I received shocking news: I had acute myeloid leukemia, a fast-moving cancer. If not treated, it can be fatal within a few months.

I felt sluggish when running the previous month, but I didn’t take a break. I ran about 20 miles a week near my home and also played on a tennis team. Running brings me calm and clarity; I wasn’t about to give it up. And as it turned out, if not for running, I might not be here now. I had unknowingly recognized the first signs of disease before it got me.

Panic and fear set in when my new doctors at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston described the grueling treatment. Beginning April 9, I would have three rounds of intense chemotherapy over six months, with rest periods between at home. Each round would take five days, and I would stay for about a month at the adjoining hospital, Brigham and Women’s.

When I was admitted, I asked where patients exercised. ”Usually on the Pike,” a nurse replied. I thought she meant the Massachusetts Turnpike but soon learned that she was referring to a corridor where turnpike-like signs indicated medical offices.

Putting on a mask and gloves to protect myself from germs, I dragged my IV pole up and down the Pike, stopping to do runner’s stretches. My walks on the Pike gave shape to my days and distracted me from pain and anxiety.

Fear of death was in the back of my mind, but I had more immediate challenges — 105-degree fevers, vomiting, shakes, diarrhea, head-to-toe rashes and sores in my mouth and throat so severe that I sometimes couldn’t eat. I cried and considered staying in bed, curled up under the quilt I had brought from home. But I knew that if I could get out, I’d feel energized for 30 minutes or maybe even an hour. Putting one foot in front of the other, I felt encouraged accomplishing small goals in the face of uncertainty about the more elusive goal of beating the disease. I put on a pair of earrings, mimicking preparation for a normal day. I also rode an exercise bicycle in my room for about 15 minutes a day. When I was too sick to leave the ward, the nurses helped me calculate that 44 lengths along the nurses’ station was a mile and let me walk it using bags of saline solution as weights.

My hair fell out, grew back and fell out again. Once when I was at home between treatments, I fainted into my mother’s arms and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. I had developed a dangerous pneumonia that required lung surgery.

When I went into remission, I was thrilled. But a year and a half after my treatment ended, I still play back what my doctor, Daniel DeAngelo, said at our first meeting: Remission is not cure. After two years, you break out the Champagne. After five, they call you ”cured.”

I worked on my strength when I was home by walking short distances and playing a little tennis. In August, I was well enough to travel with my tennis team to a tournament in Maine. My doctor said that if I felt O.K. I could play, so I did. I joked to my partner that maybe I should remove my scarf and intimidate our doubles opponents with my bald head. I wore the scarf. Hitting the ball for an hour and a half, I was an athlete, not a patient. I hadn’t expected much, but we won. Two weeks later, I was back in the hospital.

My father always said, ”You have to keep moving.” A year before his death at 87, he could barely walk, but he put down his cane to hit tennis balls with my sister, Diane, and me. When we finished, he said, ”Now I feel alive.” My mother is also not one for moping. Day after day, she cheerfully accompanied me up and down the Pike despite terrible pain in her hip and her feet.

I came home for good on Oct. 6, 2003, after the third and most powerful dose of chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant to regenerate my depleted bone marrow. Barely able to climb a small hill, I wondered if I’d ever run again. I built up to walking about an hour a day through the fall and winter. Last March, I began jogging at a local track. I alternated walking and running for about a mile, gradually adding running laps. I gasped for breath, but I knew I’d really feel like myself only if I could run.

This past November, I ran my first post-cancer race — six miles in a sea of brightly clothed runners. A number pinned to my shirt, I shared their excitement. I was outside, the wind against my face. I put one foot in front of the other, faster now, feeling light-footed and light of heart once again.

Ronni Gordon lives in western Massachusetts, where she is a reporter for The Republican in Springfield.

Because of the volume of submissions, the magazine cannot return or respond to unsolicited manuscripts.

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