Two Year Cancerversary

November 18, 2013. That was the day I had surgery for pancreatic cancer. I was one of the lucky ones. I could have surgery. Most people with my diagnosis cannot. Half of my pancreas and my whole spleen were removed and then shortly thereafter I went through 18 rounds of chemo. It was a long road that I have previously chronicled here, but I made it through. Most pancreatic cancer patients do not survive the first year. In fact, 80% do not make it to the one year mark.

When I planned my surgery, I did it strategically. In our house, November is a busy month. Our oldest daughter, my husband and my father all have November birthdays. I remember scheduling my surgery between my daughter’s 16th birthday and my husband and dad’s birthdays. I knew my illness cast a dark cloud over all of our celebrations that year, but I wanted to try to give enough time so that we could celebrate everyone else’s special day.

Last year, as the birthdays and my cancerversary approached, I admit that I thought a lot about my own anniversary. I was excited for the birthdays and so grateful that I got to be there for them, but I thought a great deal about my own anniversary and what it meant to me. I thought about everything that it signified and all of the stuff that we had experienced over that past year.

This year, as my cancerversary has approached, I have been aware of it, but in a significant mental and emotional shift, it has become less important to me. I have been more focused on other stuff in my life: Riley’s 18th birthday, my husband’s 50th birthday, my daddy’s birthday, my work and the race series that I am currently wrapped up in co-directing.

Still, it is an important anniversary and one that bears marking, because so much in our worlds changed two years ago. At this point in time in 2013, our worlds were rocked by my diagnosis. We did not know how much time I would have with my family. I think about the things that I have gotten to take part in over the last two years that I might not have had I not been so fortunate throughout my diagnosis and treatment. There have been birthdays. The girls were 10 and 16 when I was diagnosed. Now they are 12 and 18. Riley is legally an adult. Riley got her driver’s license. The college decision has been made (Go CSU Rams!) There have been homecomings and a prom. For Peyton, there have been karate belts earned, selection for a club volleyball team and a number of other successes in athletic and academic areas. She moved from elementary to middle school as I finished chemotherapy.

With Riley & Peyton on Riley's 18th birthday

With Riley & Peyton on Riley’s 18th birthday

Steve and I celebrated another year of wedded bliss. My family and I took an amazing vacation together, where I also happened to run a 100 mile race.

The family crossing the finish line with me!

The family crossing the finish line with me at the Bryce 100

Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race

Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race

I ran a full marathon and a half-marathon with Project Purple charity teams.

With Elli & Dino

With Elli & Dino in Lincoln, NE

With Jenny

With Jenny in her home state of NE

Several of the Project Purple Denver team members at the event.

Several of the Project Purple Denver team members at the event.

I ran a 50 mile race this fall at the Bear Chase Trail Race.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

I ran a mountain race with my husband and friends.

Breck Crest with my honey

Breck Crest with my honey

With Debby, my friend since I moved to CO in 1999!

With Debby, my friend since I moved to CO in 1999!

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I race directed a charity 5k for Project Purple and continued working with our local club, the Pikes Peak Road Runners.

Having fun after the race!

Having fun after the Project Purple 5k!

With my PPRR Fall Series crew

With my PPRR Fall Series crew

We gained a new family member when we adopted Willy in January.

Our newest family member, Willy

Our newest family member, Willy

And last week, we said good-bye to the Grand Dame, Greta, who passed away..

She was a natural beauty

Greta, the Bullmastiff

I got to spend time with our wonderful extended family back east over the summer, which is something I never, ever take for granted.

Through all of this, I have met so many amazing and wonderful people that I simply cannot name them all. I do hope they all know the positive impact they have had on my life.

I often think in long-term thoughts now, which is something I did not always feel that I could or should do. I wonder what college will be like for Riley and what high school will be like for Peyton. I wonder what new adventures are on the horizon for Steve and me as our kids grow and prepare to move on to live their own lives independent of us..

Not everything is easy or joyous, of course. You never get through cancer without any long-term repercussions. I saw an endocrinologist recently and  we agreed that it was time to try a medication to help stabilize my blood sugar levels, which have been all over the place. I have not felt like my normally energetic self for a while now and I am hoping that this will help return me to where I used to be. I am still trying to make peace with this recent turn of events. I would never have been in this position if I had not had half of my pancreas taken out. While I know that I am so very lucky to be here, I am also frustrated by how I have been feeling. If pancreatic cancer had not chosen me, I would not be facing the health issues that I am facing now.

All of the above being said, I know that pancreatic cancer gave me many gifts, too. One of those gifts is the gift of friendship from so many people I would not have otherwise met. I will relay one story now because it demonstrates to me the serendipity of life. In September, I was running the Bear Chase 50 mile race. I was wearing my Project Purple shirt which says “Survivor/Running with half a pancreas” on the back. I passed a woman who was running the 50k (different courses that converge over time) and she asked me, “Why are you running with half a pancreas?” I told her my story and she told me that she was a type 1 diabetic. We chatted a bit, but eventually parted ways. I had hoped that I would see her again after the race was over, but I did not.

Three weeks later, I was working the Project Purple booth at the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon expo. Guess who stopped by?

With my new friend, Jen.

With my new friend, Jen.

Jen and I were meant to meet. I believe that fully in my heart. As it turns out, she had a friend who was battling pancreatic cancer. Sadly, her friend passed away shortly after we met in Denver; another tragic loss to this dreadful disease.

When I met with the endocrinologist a couple of weeks later, he told me to make friends with Type 1 diabetic athletes. I believe we met because we both needed each other at this point in our lives. She needed to see someone living beyond PC and I needed to meet someone who could show me that distance running and diabetes can co-exist. It all seems overwhelming right now but I know that I will figure it all out in time.

So much has happened in the past two years. I am so grateful that I am still here. I have been given the gift of more time with my family, and I have been given the gift of new and meaningful friendships. This year I look forward to seeing my eldest graduate from high school and go off to college, and to seeing my youngest enter her teenage years. Even though it has not always been easy, I am excited to see what year three brings!

You can read last year’s cancerversary remembrance here:

https://mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/remembering-on-my-cancerversary/

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My New World

In the weeks since my last post, I signed up for three races. I will be running the Breck Crest full with my husband at the end of August. Next up will be the Bear Chase Trail race 50 at the end of September. Finally, in October, I will run the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon with my Project Purple team. These races could not be any more different, but I am looking forward to a late summer/fall of running in beautiful places with my husband, my friends and teammates.

In the meantime, we have been keeping busy with travel, work and important milestones.

Riley got her driver’s license yesterday.

Outside of the DMV

Outside of the DMV

If we had been on target, she would have had it a while ago, but when one person in the family gets cancer, the whole family suffers consequences. When I was sick, I was not well enough to practice driving with Riley most days. So, while her friends, one by one, posted happy pictures outside of the DMV as they got their licenses, my daughter had to wait patiently for her turn. Sometimes she was distressed by the fact that it was taking so long, but she never made me feel guilty about my own limitations. It took us a long time to get her mandatory driving hours completed. But we finally did and the big day was Tuesday of this week. We waited for close to four hours at the DMV but I would have waited in that office for a week just to be there with her for that special rite of passage. It was one of those moments that happens once in a lifetime and I got to be there to witness it.

I know this is an exciting moment in most families, but for me, it was a joy that I can never fully convey. As I lay in the hospital after my surgery for pancreatic cancer, I wondered whether I would get to witness all of these milestones. I said to myself repeatedly, “I just have to make it to graduation.” Every dance, every ceremony, every college visit, every “first” or “final” day is something that I celebrate with an enthusiasm that I probably would not have had before. For every significant moment in my kids’ lives, I think to myself, “I didn’t know if I was going to get to be here, but here I am!”

After we went through the paperwork at the DMV, I teared up. Standing in a sea of people in the dirty and crowded room, I cried and hugged my daughter. I didn’t care who saw or what they thought. The truth is that I cry a lot these days. These tears are not from sadness, but are from a place of profound gratitude. Really feeling every single emotion has been one of the gifts of the last 20 months. I have always been an intense person. Whereas I used to try to downplay intensity, now I celebrate it. It is such a gift to fully experience love and joy and excitement and even sadness in this new post-cancer phase of my life. I never thought that my emotional world was muted before, but now it feels like it most certainly was in ways that I did not recognize. My emotions are often right at the surface. Simple things bring such profound joy. I see everything through a new, different and clearer lens. I went to sleep in a world filled with blacks, whites and grays. I woke up to a world that was an explosion of vivid and vibrant color.

Could this have happened without having experienced something so life-altering? I do not know, but I do think it is a fairly common phenomenon for some of us who have been affected by a life-threatening illness. Just last night, I spoke to a friend of mine who has been battling lung, adrenal and brain cancer. He shared with me that he experiences the same raw emotions all of the time. Neither of us feels ashamed of our new heightened emotional state. The biggest similarity I see between the two of us is the profound sense of gratitude that we have for every minute we get on the planet.  Every time I look at my kids, my husband, my dogs, or the beauty of nature in my home state of Colorado, I feel like my heart may just burst with joy and love. For all of the difficult moments from the last 20 months, I do not think I would change a thing. I get to be here on this beautiful planet for another day. How wonderful is that?

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I just finished a 100 mile race. What’s next?

I had a CT scan on Monday, June 15. I picked up a copy of the report and the big news is that it says “no masses”. This is awesome! I have now made it 19 months past my surgery and diagnosis without a recurrence of pancreatic cancer. June 16 also marked one year since I finished chemotherapy. I cannot believe all of the good things that have happened in this past year. It has gone by so quickly and has been simply amazing. My family and I are understandably feeling quite ecstatically happy about my good health. I don’t necessarily feel like I am beating the odds, though I suppose I am. Rather, it feels like this is how things are “supposed” to be for me and for us. I was not supposed to have cancer in the first place. I am supposed to be here, happy and healthy.While the future was once in doubt, now I make plans without really giving it too much thought.

It has been 2 weeks since I finished the Bryce Canyon 100 in Utah. Immediately following the race, our family spent several days touring some of the National Parks in Utah. This was the first vacation we have taken in a very long time and it felt like a fitting end to the ordeal of the last 19 months.

I was pleased to find that I was feeling well enough to do a series of small hikes in the national parks.Tour guide Peyton informed us that Bryce is actually not a canyon. It is a series of rock amphitheaters. We loved the hoodoo rock formations of Bryce Canyon. There are completely unique from anything we have seen anywhere else.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Steve & I next to enormous rocks in Bryce Canyon

Steve & I next to enormous rocks in Bryce Canyon

We moved onto Zion National Park following our time in Bryce.

Zion is completely different. It is a canyon and gets very hot. It is beautiful in a completely different way from Bryce.

The girls under the weeping rock, looking out towards the canyon.

The girls under the weeping rock, looking out towards the canyon.

Hiking the Watchmen Trail

Hiking the Watchmen Trail

We hiked up some of the Narrows “trail”, which actually just goes up the Virgin River through the canyon.

Hiking the Narrows

Hiking the Narrows

Under a small waterfall

Under a small waterfall

steve, peyton & riley in the narrows

Finally, we moved on to Moab and visited Arches National Park.

Obligatory family photo in front of Delicate Arch

Obligatory family photo in front of Delicate Arch

Peyton underneath Delicate Arch

Peyton underneath Delicate Arch

We came home tired and happy. It was so nice to get away together. We even survived five days in one small hotel room without killing each other.

When we got home, it was time to hit the ground running with real life. Steve signed up to run the Pikes Peak double this year. He will run the Pikes Peak Ascent on Saturday of race weekend and then run the full marathon on Sunday. For those who are unfamiliar with the race, it goes up Barr Trail to the top of Pikes Peak, a 14,115 foot mountain just outside of Colorado Springs. You can read more about the race at the website below.

http://www.pikespeakmarathon.org/

Steve has been training with me for the Bryce 100 for months now. I always feel so lucky that my husband and I can spend time running together. While it could be difficult when the kids were little because we both wanted to run, it has always been something that we have shared and bonded over.

I never wanted the kind of relationship where one of our passions or athletic pursuits trumped the other person’s. I see couples where one person runs and races all of the time and the spouse simply follows along and takes care of the kids. I know for some couples, this arrangement works well for them. But I love the fact that Steve and I spend time training together and that we take turns supporting one another’s athletic endeavors. We share our passion and truly encourage one another in pursuing the events and distances we truly love. He supported my Bryce venture 100%. Now I get to support his Pikes Peak double 100% and I am grateful to be able to do so.

Steve leaving me in the dust on his first real training run for the Pikes Peak Double.

Steve leaving me in the dust on his first real training run for the Pikes Peak Double.

A lot of times after completing a big goal race, I experience a bit of an emotional let down. After months and months of preparation, followed by completion of the event, I often find myself thinking, “Now what?” So far, I haven’t really had that post-race funk sink in. I am not sure why. I know immediately after finishing Bryce, I started thinking, “What race can I run next?” There really is such a emotional, psychological and physical high that comes from a successful race. It is easy to fall into the trap of chasing that feeling. If I had my way three days after the 100, I probably would have signed myself up for five more races. Instead, I decided to slow down and rein myself in a bit.

I know there are people who race constantly all year long. If they have jobs and families and can still make it work with their sanity and relationships intact, then I am in awe. I try to target a couple of big races per year and find that is really all I logistically do and still work and be a good wife and parent. Maybe that takes my badass credibility down a couple of notches, but that is OK with me. I don’t need to be a badass. I only need to be honest with myself about what I can successfully manage in my life. I am most proud when I feel like I am doing a good job balancing all of the roles I play.

I know I will eventually have to have another epic race on the horizon. Right now I just want to have some fun with my running and enjoy some mental and physical recovery and rejuvenation. I plan to run the Denver Rock n Roll Marathon with Project Purple in October and I am looking forward to sharing training runs with my teammates. I have a couple of other trail/ultra races I am eyeing, but I really want to support my husband in his upcoming races and I do not want to miss out on Riley’s senior year of high school. We have started the summer college tour and interview process and I know that in the blink of an eye my baby will no longer be living with me.

For now, I continue to reflect back on the Bryce experience and think about how truly incredible it was for me. Instead of being consumed by what I feel I need to do next, I am trying to simply enjoy all of the wonderful experiences of the last couple of weeks. For endurance athletes, there seems to be this insistence that we always have to constantly outdo what we have already done. I think that in many cases, it boils down to the need to chase that high. Right now, I am resisting that urge to compulsively chase the high of big ultra endurance events. I am really focusing on taking some time to breathe and celebrate my life and my accomplishments.   I will, of course, pursue other races down the line, but for a little while, my goal is to support my family as they work towards fulfilling some of their own dreams. I will cheer on my husband at Pikes Peak. I will soak in all of those memorable “last times” with my high school senior. I will focus on making some good memories with friends and family over the summer. I will run simply for the joy that running brings me.

Finally, I wanted to say a special “Thank You!” to Arianne Brown for the nice article on KSL.com about my Bryce adventure.

http://www.ksl.com/?nid=1010&sid=35027516

Running to Save Lives

I used to be cynical about “raising awareness” campaigns. I remember wondering, “How does raising awareness actually help to accomplish anything?” That all changed instantly when I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in November of 2013. Pancreatic Cancer has the highest mortality rate of any cancer, yet funding from the federal government for pancreatic cancer research is among the lowest for any cancer. While death rates for other cancers are declining, death rates for Pancreatic Cancer are expected to grow in the next several years. It is projected that pancreatic cancer will be the second leading cause of cancer deaths by 2020, surpassed only by lung cancer. The five-year mortality rate continues to be about 6% for all four stages.

After getting my diagnosis, I suddenly understood the point of “awareness” campaigns. We desperately need attention brought to this extremely lethal illness so that the general public will care enough to give much-needed funding for research. Those of us who have been affected by the pancreatic cancer want to scream from the rooftops, “Please help before one more amazing human being dies!” We are in a race against time. We desperately need new and better therapies. We need money to go into clinical trials. It truly is a matter of life or death. So, when we talk about “raising awareness”, please understand that we are talking about bringing attention to an illness that is highly lethal and we really are talking about trying to save lives.

It is because of this that I decided that I must personally do something to help others with Pancreatic Cancer. My contribution is what I am calling the race trifecta of 2015. I will be running the Lincoln Marathon in May, 2015. In June, just a month later, I will be running the Bryce Canyon 100. Then, in October, I will be running the Denver Rock N Roll Marathon.

I have established a Crowdrise fundraising link that you can follow here. Please consider making a donation. All funds raised will go to Project Purple, which has a mission of helping to fund cancer research and help those who have been affected by pancreatic cancer.

https://www.crowdrise.com/survivortoniaruns/fundraiser/toniasmith

Running for the cause of helping others inspires and motivates me. I know of no other pancreatic cancer survivor who has run  a 100 mile race. Sadly, most people who have been touched by pancreatic cancer have not been as fortunate as I have been. I hope to use my own good health to bring much-needed attention to the illness that has affected my family and so many others so deeply.

I put in 94 miles of training from last Saturday through this Friday. I ran in snow. I ran at 9500 feet of elevation in the mountains.

In the snow about 9000'.

In the snow about 9000′.

I did a speed workout. I ran when I was tired. I ran during every spare moment I had. I ran when it hurt. I ran alone. I ran with friends. I ran with my husband. I ran with my dog.

Running with my dog in the snow

Running with my dog in the snow

I ran for every person whose pancreatic cancer story has touched my life. I ran for the people who are still fighting. I ran for the people who have been lost. Every time I felt like not running, I thought about all of the reasons why I needed to press on anyway.

I have met so many amazing people who have been affected by Pancreatic Cancer in the last 16 months. As long as I continue to live, breathe and have “fight” left in my body, I will do what I can to continue to bring attention to this disease. We need a cure now. Too many people have been lost already. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to my campaign. Your money can help save lives.