by Jeanette Dunlap
The night before dinner. The waking up at the crack of dawn. The nerves. The getting dressed to go meet with more people who are up early getting prepared. You know the drill, except this is not a race. It is the morning of my cancer surgery.
Let’s back it up to early 2016. Two friends and I signed up for our first trail marathon, and as if that wasn’t enough, we also signed up for our first 50K which would follow two months later. We trained together all Summer leading up to the marathon.
In August, sixteen days prior to the race, I went in for outpatient surgery to remove a epidermoid lump behind my ear. I was not able to run for a week until the stitches were removed. No problem I thought, I will start my taper early. However, when I got my stitches out, I was diagnosed with intermediate grade mucoepidermoid carcinoma also known as salivary cancer.
I was just your average mother runner, a mom of 3 young kids. Always healthy, never had surgery or stitches before, but cancer doesn’t care. I’ve been a mid-pack runner most of my life dabbling in a variety of races from road to trail to triathlons to adventure races. Running was my “me time.” Now I find myself wondering how having head and neck cancer is going to affect not only my running, but also my family and friends.
“I have cancer” is news you never want to have to tell your running friends 8 days before a race. However, that 14 hour drive to Minnesota, the 26.2 mile run, and the recovery dip in chilly Lake Superior with my friends was just what I needed. I didn’t want that race to end. I knew when I finished that race I would be focusing on cancer treatments and learning more about salivary cancer, not running our first 50K together.
Instead of hitting the trails with my friends to train for our ultra, they were checking in on me seeing how they could help. They were asking how my tests and doctors’ appointments were going instead of asking about my last run. I was still running a few times a week, as running has always been a “washing machine” for my mind.
The week that I was suppose to run the 50K with my friends, I had my cancer surgery to remove part of my parotid gland and some lymph nodes. They were able to remove all of the cancer surgically, so I am now cancer free!
Now 3 months post surgery, I am a few weeks away from my reventure (revenge adventure) 60k ultra with one of my best running friends. She ran the trail marathon with me and was signed up for the 50k, but ended up with pneumonia so this is her reventure too (when does life or a race ever go as planned?). We have supported each other through the thick and thin of life, and will do the same in running.
Going through these events reinforces how life and running are interrelated. We will have struggles in life, in training, and in racing. Learning to deal with and overcome struggles in our running journeys equally prepares us to face life’s challenges. Just breathing, focusing on the mile we are running, or counting steps, can help us refocus and feel some relief in races.
These tactics transfer over when life is turned upside down. We focus on one thing at a time, just what’s necessary in life, take a deep breath, or go for a walk (if you cannot run). When life takes a tumble, we know these setbacks are short, but we need to face the issues straight on and know we do not have to do it alone. Running friends can relate to setbacks and can help ease the burden just like the crowds cheering you on at races, so let them.
We are never the same after a race, just like we are never the same after unexpected life experiences. The people you meet training for races or going through rough times will change you too. Find and bonding with a running tribe is just as important, as sharing strength and weakness with friends and family when facing cancer. The tribe doubles the joy on running adventures and life’s milestones. They understand that part of your heart is on the trail when you cannot run with them that day. Running friends understand that running is a life sport and many adventures are out there waiting for you when you are ready. Your running tribe is waiting to take the journey with you wherever it may lead.
As I was preparing myself for cancer surgery, I had the comfort of relating it to my races: I would get up early, always have nerves, knew there were others getting prepared, knew I’d have cheerleaders along the way, and after it was all over, I would have a recovery period to get ready for the next adventure.
Recovery period is now over for me.
Watch out reventure, my Kentuckian trail sisters and I are coming for you!
About the Author
Jeanette has been a runner since she was on the middle school track team and hasn’t stopped her mid-pack running tendencies. She enjoys training for new racing challenges which has led her to participate in trail races, team relays, triathlons, and adventure races. Jeanette lives in Kentucky with her husband, 3 children, and 2 dogs.