No Longer “Just Happy To Be Alive”

Recently I publicly expressed some frustrations over the ways in which my body is different after having survived pancreatic cancer.  In response, I had a friend wonder why I was not more grateful just to be alive. Though I have tried to practice gratitude on a daily basis, her point was well taken and really made me ponder my own attitudes and beliefs. Am I being ungrateful? Should I just be happy that I am alive at all?

Practicing gratitude has become an ingrained part of my daily life. I have thanked my doctors, the nurses, my medical team and hopefully every person who has supported me along the way. I am thankful for every day I have with my family. Things could have turned out much differently for me, and I am painfully aware of that fact. I have had friends with Pancreatic Cancer pass away. I have friends who are currently in hospice. I have friends who are fighting their disease with every last breath in their body. I never, ever can forget how differently things could have turned out for my family and me. But I think we can be grateful to be alive and still hope for more out of life.

I remember a few months ago, asking some friends of mine who are battling pancreatic cancer what they wanted the world to know about them and their fight. One woman said, “That we don’t just want to be living. We understand that our bodies aren’t going to be able to do everything they did before. But we want to live as well as we possibly can.” At the time, I was so close to my cancer treatments that I did not entirely “get” what this survivor was saying. I was still thinking how I was “just happy to be alive”.I think there comes a time for many of us who have survived something significant that we start to think about the possibilities in life as we move beyond basic survival mode. That is a good thing. It is part of the healing process.

None of us knows how much time we have left in life. But for those of us who have had a potentially deadly diagnosis, we are even more aware of our limited time on this planet. Now that I am a ways out from my diagnosis and treatment, I am getting to a place where I believe that I have a long-term future. I never forget that my cancer could come back at any moment in time, as I have seen this happen time and time again among my fellow survivors. But no matter how much time I have left, I want to make the most of it. I want to make a difference in the world. I want to do epic things that challenge me and push me. I want to live, love, work, play, run, explore and push boundaries.

So should I just be happy to be alive? The goal of life should be not to simply just exist, but to thrive. We would never tell a child who survived cancer that they should not look forward to growing up, going to college, getting married and living a full life. We would never say, “Hey, why do you think you are entitled to having the things that other people dream of? You should just be happy to be alive!”

We applaud and encourage people who have overcome other problems. We cheer and applaud the efforts of those living with differently- abled bodies who attempt to do extraordinary things. We want to see them dream big, live large and succeed. I cannot imagine people telling someone who lives with a prosthetic limb, for example, that they should just be happy to be alive. We want people to overcome obstacles and not just live but live well.

So, I wonder why it should be different for those of us who have endured the kinds of things my fellow cancer survivors and I have endured? I wonder if it is in part because Pancreatic Cancer is deemed such a hopeless disease. I was reading recently how even many doctors view Pancreatic Cancer as a death sentence. But, if you talk to those of us who have lived through it or who are living with it, we do not see ourselves as hopeless.I am missing a couple of organs. That does not mean I am ready to hang it up and just exist. No matter how much time I have, I never want to stop imaging the possibilities in my life. I hope I always have dreams, goals and aspirations. Those are the things that help to make us better human beings.

I do think it is possible to be grateful and still want or demand more than just existence. My hope is that with my determination and with the help of the medical community, people who have had my kind of surgery can attain a better quality of life long-term. The first goal for Pancreatic Cancer patients is, of course, survival. The second goal needs to be attaining a good quality of life for those of us who have undergone radical surgeries. I do not want to see any more pancreatic cancer survivors stuck at home because their bodies no longer allow them to live full lives. I want to see more survivors and I want to see those survivors doing all of the things that they want to do with their lives. I fully believe that we can and should aim for a great quality of life.

For now, I am grateful that I got in lots of good running mileage this week. This is my first 100 mile week since before I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember thinking before my surgery that I might never run again. I am so thankful for every step I get to take.

You know your ran went well when you look like this at the finish.

You know your run went well when you look like this at the finish.

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Finally, the word “inspiration” makes me slightly uncomfortable. Whenever someone tells me that my story has inspired them in some way, I feel myself squirm a bit. However, when someone’s story inspires us, it helps us imagine possibilities that we had not considered before. I want to take a moment to mention people who have inspired me and lifted me up over these past couple of weeks.

Ultrarunner Larry DeWitt is a guy I literally met in passing a couple of years ago when I was training for the Vermont 100. I stopped him because he was wearing an ultrarunning shirt and I wanted to connect with other local ultrarunners. We enjoyed a pleasant chat and then did not cross paths again until recently. Larry is an accomplished runner and cyclist, but that’s not what I appreciate about him. What I love about Larry is that he is a genuinely humble, kind, caring and encouraging person. He is also someone who has overcome some of his own health issues, and his story has given me comfort and hope for my own future.

Larry and his two friends Jeff Mulder and Matt Larsen are currently training to run the Burning RIver 100 in honor of Ben, who has had childhood cancer. They are raising money for a children’s hospital, which is a noble endeavor. You can read Larry’s outstanding blog here:

http://adventuresinendurance.blogspot.com/

Their Facebook page Burning River for Ben is here:

https://www.facebook.com/burningriverforben

Please check out what they are doing. They are great men who are running for a great cause. They are training hard to achieve their goals and they inspire me to keep doing what I am doing.

Road Blocks

I have been uncharacteristically quiet on my blog for the past couple of weeks. As soon as I made my big announcement that I was running three races for charity this year, I hit several road blocks. I keep trying to remind myself that nothing is worth working for comes easily, and that hitting road blocks and dealing with them is just part of the process.  But, I admit that I have had some difficulty keeping my spirits up over the past couple of weeks.

We recently got a new dog. We have now had Willy for just over a month. The first few days he lived with us, he was a dream dog. In many ways, he still is. He is sweet, smart and loving while simultaneously being low maintenance in the house. Unfortunately, my new running companion has an off-the-charts prey drive. He wants to chase everything. By everything, I mean rabbits, squirrels, birds, other runners, cyclist, cars, trucks and trains. Our runs have been frustrating for both of us. They are frustrating for me because I spend much of my time trying to gain his attention and redirect him. They are frustrating for Willy, because, as a stray, he probably spent a lot of time chasing things and now, suddenly, he cannot do that. He thrashes, bites the leash, barks, lunges and does pretty much anything he can so that he can attempt to pursue whatever it is that has his attention. We are working with a trainer, but I am a bit disheartened by the fact that we seem to be making zero progress so far.

Willy loves to run and I had visions of him being my inseparable running companion. That does not seem to be happening. The worst part of this is that his pulling and lunging has actually hurt me. I have long scoffed whenever someone asked me if running hurt my knees. “My knees are great! They never hurt!” Now suddenly, after having been yanked around so much, my left knee has been hurting on every run. I went to the physical therapist and we have been trying some different techniques, including dry needling and taping, to see if we can ease the pain. Unfortunately, I only have about eight weeks left until my first marathon of the year, and 13 weeks until the Bryce 100. I should be heavily into training right now, and instead my training is being hampered by this frustrating pain. I have not told very many people that I have been experiencing knee pain for the past couple of weeks. It is almost magical thinking that if I do not speak the words out loud, the pain is not real. However, my amazing PT, Kevin at Synergy (http://www.synergympt.com/ ) has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve. He had me taped up into a magnificent configuration and my first day of running with it seemed to go pretty well.

The weather has also not been facilitating the training process. Like much of the rest of the country, Colorado has been experiencing a great deal of snowfall and the temperatures have been frigid. While I never let the weather deter me from training, day after day of snow and cold makes training less fun. Furthermore, the slipping and sliding on the snow and ice is probably not helping my knee to improve.

In any event, I am continuing to do what I can. I am trying to get some elevation and climbing into my training program. This past weekend, Riley and I went part way up Barr Trail on Pikes Peak. There was a lot of snow but it was spectacularly beautiful, so I enjoyed every minute of being out on the mountain.

Barr Trail

Barr Trail

Colorado has the bluest of skies!

Colorado has the bluest of skies!

Riley on Barr Trail

Riley on Barr Trail

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The next day, Stephen and I ran 25 fairly flat miles. My knee did remarkably well on Barr Trail. I was very worried that the downhill would be excruciatingly painful. Maybe because we were running down on snow, it was quite manageable.The flat 25 proved to be a bit more problematic. My legs were tired from Barr already and I think the pavement exacerbated the pain. But, we got it done.

Smiling because we finished 25 miles!

Smiling because we finished 25 miles!

On Tuesday, Riley had a late start for school, so she and I went to the hills and got some additional climbing in. This time, my knee hurt a bit more on the downhill, but it was still manageable.

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Riley running down High Drive with Willy in hot pursuit.

Riley running down High Drive with Willy in hot pursuit.

There are few things I enjoy more in life than being out on the trails. I am so incredibly lucky that my lovely teenage daughter enjoys going with me.

Barr Trail Selfie

Barr Trail Selfie

Finally, something that has been a matter of concern for me is that I have been experiencing some issues with my blood sugar recently. My body does not respond to food and fuel the way it used to. Several times while out on the trail, I have felt shaky and weak. I only have half a pancreas, so it makes perfect sense that my body processes fuel differently. I am trying to figure out how to handle this and unfortunately, my doctors do not seem to know what to do with me. I have been told several times that they never see patients like me and that they will probably never have another patient like me in their careers. While I could function just fine for shorter distance races, I am likely looking at around a 30 hour finish for the Bryce 100. If I do not get this figured out quickly, this could present some real problems for me while out on the trail. I was extremely frustrated this week when I was told once again that no one knows how to help me. I had run 15 miles with a friend prior to my appointment. When I left, I was so frustrated that I went out and ran ten more. I am normally a happy runner, but in this instance I am allowing my anger and frustration to fuel and drive me. I will figure this out on my own. I am more committed than ever to reaching my goals. I will not allow this road block to stop me. 

So, these past two weeks have been stressful, painful and a bit disheartening. Road blocks are a part of life. I will figure out a way around, over or through them. These are all minor things. I made it through pancreatic cancer, and I keep reminding myself of that fact. I will find a way to work with my new body and do everything I can to succeed and reach my goals.