Three weeks ago I completed my third endurance event, the half-marathon at the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco. While the race was arduous—it took me nearly five hours—it was a stroll in the park compared to the race I'd been in over the past seven months. That one, quite simply, is the race of my life. It began with a phone call from my doctor in early March. Her voice was serious and somber as she said, "Amy, we think you have cancer." I was stunned. My life was nearly perfect. I had loving friends and family, a new dog, a great job at a major computer game company, and I was living in my favorite city: San Francisco. Plus, I was running regularly. I was 35 and in the best shape of my life.
True, I had complained of a dry, hacking cough for months. My doctor first thought it was asthma and gave me an inhaler. When that didn't work, she thought I just needed a stronger inhaler. But I knew something wasn't right, so I asked for a chest X-ray. The doctor balked but eventually agreed to it. Within hours my life changed forever.
The X-ray and a CT scan found four masses in my chest, one of them dangerously close to my heart and another on my spleen. The diagnosis was Stage III-B non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), a life-threatening cancer of the lymphatic system that usually strikes older people. I was dumbfounded and very scared. I really didn't think it was possible that my nagging little cough could actually be advanced cancer. I was young and, I thought, healthy. But there the evidence was, right there on the X-ray, staring me in the face.
Three weeks later I began the first of six rounds of chemotherapy and a month of daily radiation treatments. Needless to say, it wasn't easy. Despite the antinausea drugs, waves of queasiness hit me hard after each cycle. Food tasted metallic. I went into temporary menopause and had hot flashes. The radiation burned my skin and made me exhausted. But from the morning I began my treatments I decided that my life was not going to be ending anytime soon. This was one finish line I didn't want to cross. There was no choice but to turn around and run the other way. When I was anguished over the loss of my hair, the toughest of my side effects, I decided to cut my remaining hair, and not only that, have a big party when I did it. I invited my best friends and family. What could have been a depressing day at the hair salon turned into one of the best nights of my life. We laughed, took turns having our hair cut and raised more than $20,000 for the research programs of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Doctors declared me in remission after only two chemotherapy rounds, though I had to complete the full therapy. I was ecstatic. I now felt called to reach out to others in ways I never did before. I started writing a blog about my experiences (ichoosehope.com), and I encouraged my family and friends to listen to their bodies and watch their health. I enjoyed the simple things in life, like taking long walks and smelling the roses. Ironically, years earlier (way before I was diagnosed), I ran a marathon with the help of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training (TNT) program. The program's coaches trained me to complete the event while encouraging me to raise funds for research to cure lymphoma, leukemia and other blood cancers. I never forgot the experience and credit its emphasis on perseverance and determination with helping me make it through my own life's challenge.
Halfway through therapy, when I could barely get out of bed, I vowed to join TNT again and participate in the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco in October. Seven months after being told I had late-stage cancer, I became my team's honored patient, inspiring my fellow runners and walkers to try just a little harder. It took me longer than expected to complete the half-marathon, partly because friends and family along the route kept stopping me to share words of encouragement. But I did. It was the best day ever and reason to be proud that I never gave up. I never will.