I had to Fake It

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you had to fake it? A couple of months ago, the circumstances were a little awkward, but I really felt backed into a corner. I had no choice. I had to smile. I had to pretend.

It was December, 2017. I knew going in to my oncology appointment that all would be fine as far as my cancer was concerned. I was unafraid.

My oncologist said, “Hey! Great news! You are four years cancer-free!” He was smiling. My husband was smiling. I felt nothing. A couple of awkward seconds passed and I realized I needed to DO SOMETHING. So, I smiled,nodded my head and said, “Yeah, that’s great! Awesome! Thanks so much!”

Four Years is Awesome! Can I Please have Four Easy Years Now?

Four years is pretty damned amazing, especially for pancreatic cancer. I know so many other people have been denied the opportunity to experience four years after a cancer diagnosis. I am not ungrateful. I know exactly what pancreatic cancer means for most patients. I knew what it meant when I was diagnosed with it.

I mean, how could I NOT fake feeling ecstatic? That would be horrible. That would make ME horrible. I felt guilty and ashamed for not genuinely wanting to do cartwheels up and down the hall. I knew the people in the full waiting room were not likely getting good news. Yet, I had a very long list of other things which were weighing heavily on my mind. It is a little bit of one of those post-cancer bullshit realities: even when you face cancer, other hard things continue to come at you.

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Four years cancer free. Smiling because that’s what I am supposed to do.

When I was diagnosed in 2013, cancer was not on my ‘worry radar’ at all. I really did not think about it. I never was angry about having cancer because I do not think I ever fully moved beyond being stunned by my diagnosis.

Like many young(ish) people who have never been ill, I thought I would have cancer, get treatment and I would either die from it or I would go back to living life as it had always been. I am grateful the first option did not happen. I was surprised when B also did not happen.

Cancer comes along and creates upheaval for everyone in its orbit. It impacts the things you see as well as those things beneath the surface which have yet to make an appearance.

Earthquake, Aftershocks and Tsunami

For many survivors, cancer is the 8.9-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake which comes out of nowhere. After a period of terrifying rumbling and shaking, you and your loved ones are left huddled together (if you are lucky) in the rubble, tasked with rebuilding something which will hopefully make you feel safe and protected again. You take the pieces, patch them back together as best as you can, but there is no longer any illusion of real safety.

You know another earthquake could roll through at any time, and you know your structure is probably not strong enough to withstand more destruction and trauma. In fact, waves of aftershocks keep occurring and no matter how well you feel you have braced yourself, the shaking chips away endlessly at your foundation.

All you can do is hang on to one another and hope for the best.

Four years of survival. It sounds glorious, and in many ways it has been; however, it has also been four years of aftershocks and tsunamis. I am still here, but I feel like I have been shaken and nearly drown.

The first aftershock came in the form of a scare two years ago. The scare was a large lymph node in the celiac plexus area. I went in for a biopsy, knowing that if my cancer was back it would be extremely difficult to fight. The celiac plexus is a difficult area to reach and it is surrounded by major blood vessels. So, it is hard to remove anything there and with the blood vessels in the area, it is easy for the cancer to travel to remote parts of the body.

It was terrifying, obviously to go through a couple of months not knowing if the cancer was back. One of the hardest parts for me was not being 100% transparent with my kids about the situation. Steve and I knew we were terrified, and I did not want to shake my children’s’ foundation unnecessarily. We would tell them what we knew when we knew it. Ultimately we did not know for sure until after the biopsy and more CT scans.

There were other things that happened during that time, and I found myself sinking into a deep, dark pit of depression. Ultrarunning was what kept me literally and figuratively moving forward. I spent the summer of 2016 training for the Run Rabbit Run 100. I put one foot in front of the other, day after day after day, trying to keep the panther from eating me alive. (You can read more about that Here)

As fate would have it, the race brought me the joy I needed, but a few months later I realized I had an injury I needed to address. I needed a delicate and possibly run-ending hip surgery. I had a hip labrum repair at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, CO under Dr. Phillippon. I had the right hip operated on March 30, 2017, just under a year ago. (Read more HERE)

My recovery was going extremely well until A)I hurt my shoulder swimming during rehab and B) my foot started to hurt. I had some foot pain off and on prior to RRR 100, but it was never enough to stop me. As soon as I started running again and adding hills into my training program, my foot started hurting. It hurt so badly I walked with a limp.

EVERY SINGLE DAY I woke up and told myself, my husband, my friends, “Today is the day! I am going to get out there, have a great run and turn this around!” I did not want this foot injury to sink me mentally after everything else I had been through.

After months of positive self-talk which did nothing to help me, I wondered if I was doing it wrong. Or if I was delusional…or just plain old stupid.

Tonia Willy Williams Canyon

For the last six months, I have tried different things to fix my foot, as I have slowly watched my identity of being a runner disappear over the horizon. I would not care so much if I could hike or do anything without being pain. But that is not where things are for me right now.

Dear God, NOW What?

In the meantime, I have been diagnosed with two other significant health issues, one being an issue I caught on my cancer CT scan report and brought to my doctor.  (People, always read your reports and ask your doctors what stuff means. If you do not get good explanations, go somewhere else!) There is another issue I am still trying to figure out.

In addition, a very dear. very much-loved family member is also having significant health issues. It kills me to be far away because I cannot hug him during his own aftershocks. And, of course, I can never forget the impact my cancer had on my children.

Who am I and Why am I Here?

The constant stress of the last four years have indeed triggered a chain reaction of problems.

I MISS the old me. I miss being a person who took for granted the fact that I would live to be 90 or older. I miss my strong, uncut body. I miss the body which rebounded from illness and injury quickly. I miss not being in pain.

I miss the unquestioning faith I had in my physical abilities. I miss the belief I once had in myself that ‘anything was possible’.

Tonia Smith Pancreatic Cancer

Tonia & Steve

I miss having a body that was imperfect but dependable. I miss taking for granted there would be more running and more races for years to come. I miss believing with every fiber of my being that I could conquer every mountain and finish every 100.

And I miss how running protected my mental health and emotions. I miss knowing I could go spend a couple of hours in the mountains and come back better for it.

Maybe it will all come back. I have not give up all hope, though there have been some extremely difficult days. I keep thinking that after battling cancer, life should guarantee you a couple of relatively easy years, but it does not. For now, I will just hold my loved ones in the rubble and hope we can all keep hanging on. And I hope at my five-year appointment, I no longer need to fake it.

Tonia Smith cancer

With my Aussie, Willy, a couple of months ago.

EEG

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Off the Deep End

Forty Days ago I had hip surgery. This past week I hit some major milestones. I am now cleared to drive my car.

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A driving selfie just because I was so darned happy to get to drive myself for a change!

I got to go on my first short walks with my husband and the dogs.

Sadie rolling

I am mostly weaned off of my crutches, only using them when my leg becomes very tired or sore.

I have been faithful to doing my physical therapy exercises. I go to the pool 3-4 times per week. I went from barely being able to swim for 5 minutes to now being able to swim a mile (using the buoy) with relative physical ease. I am still grateful for the ability to swim for exercise. If it weren’t for the pool, I would have no way to work my heart and lungs for the first twelve weeks post-op.

The Pool: The Depths of Sadness

Yet I still don’t love swimming. Every time I go to the pool I have to have a serious heart-to-heart talk with myself. It takes me several minutes to psych myself, first to the leave the house and then, when I get to the pool, to go in. There is something I find depressing about the pool.

At first I thought that it is because you can’t really talk to anyone while you are swimming, but then I realized it is more than that. The pool, for me, amplifies feelings of isolation. When I head to the pool, I convince myself it will be a time of solitude and reflection. But the pool seems to always be busy. Instead of relishing some time to be alone with my thoughts, I find myself surrounded by people, often in close proximity, but without being able to connect with anyone. There are cursory words, ‘hi, mind if we share this lane?’ But that is about as far as the conversation goes. There is a profound sense of isolation that comes from being surrounded by people without any real sense of connection.

Isolation Vs. Being Alone

It isn’t that I don’t like being alone. But the experience through running is different. I have spent countless miles and hours alone on the trails. I come away with a clearer head. On the trails, I can focus on the world around me, taking in the beauty of nature, while allowing my internal world to work through life’s problems. I come home feeling freer, lighter, calmer. The time on the trails gives me a perspective that is hard to reach in other situations.

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Being alone with one’s thoughts without traffic, noise, technology and other distractions is a rare gift these days. Several recent studies have shown how important time in nature is to our mental health and well-being. After spending nearly 6 weeks without a single excursion to the trails I love, I realize how important that time is for my own sense of mental and emotional peace. Being alone on the trails gives a sense of connection to the universe. Being in the pool surrounded by people I don’t know leaves me feeling empty.

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The Intimacy of the Trails

There is something else that sets swimming in the pool apart from running the trails. There is a sense of intimacy that comes from relationships built on the trails. I joke that running is a sort of ‘truth serum’ that causes you to share things with people that you might not every share otherwise. Run with a partner and you will soon know everything about that person. When I think of my closest friends, the image that comes to mind is often a particular conversation or snapshot in time on a trail. Topics we might never bring up in other circumstances become subjects of intense debate, scrutiny and mutual understanding on the run.

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The Things I Learn About Running from Not Running

I don’t crave large numbers of friends built on superficial relationships. I live for the few people with whom I enjoy deeper conversations and connection. I desire the closeness that comes with truly knowing others. I want the relationship where we love one another not despite our flaws and inner secrets, but because we trust one another enough to share them.

 

Those are the moments I miss right now. It isn’t training or racing or putting in big miles or tempo runs or hill repeats that I want at this point. I long for those moments of being purely alone in the mountains. I miss the quiet moments with one close friend. I yearn for feelings that cannot be quantified or measured, those moments and conversations that leave me both energized and grounded in a way nothing else does.

So for now, the pool leaves me feeling cold, both emotionally and physically. I will keep going because I know eventually it will pay off and allow me to return to what my heart and soul crave most. For the time being, I will try to envision the mountain vistas with each stroke and breath as I try to stay afloat, forever moving forward.

Tonia Jacks

Race Report: PPRR Winter Series 3 & Brewer’s Cup

At the end of last year, my friend Vanessa Shawver came up with the idea for the Inaugural 2016 Pikes Peak Road Runner’s Brewer’s Cup. She got 19 local breweries and distilleries to sign on as team sponsors. Each team has 15 runners. The breweries and distilleries provide a team shirt which the runners wear at all of the local Pikes Peak Road Runner events. There are post-race, weekly and monthly gatherings at the business so it is a win-win for all involved. All of the races on our club calendar, plus the charity 5k for Project Purple, are on the Brewer’s Cup list. Points are awarded for participation, overall wins and age group awards. Because Vanessa’s goal in her running life is to encourage all runners, she wanted to make sure that runners who finish at the back of the pack would be earning points and thus contributing to their teams.

In theory, we want to make every single race, but we know that life gets in the way and not everyone will attend every race. Steve and I made it to the first couple of races and had a blast. Then we have missed a few due to illness, work and our parenting responsibilities.. But that’s just life. We do what we can and we make as many races as we are able.

After what has felt like weeks of very cold weather, we had 20 inches of snow fall in our neighborhood last Sunday through Tuesday. It has taken our area a long time to dig out. The local trails are all pretty much a complete icy, sloppy, muddy mess. There are many places that are simply not runnable right now.

The temperatures warmed up nicely over the past couple of days and Saturday was slated to top out in the 60s. We couldn’t have asked for nicer mid-winter weather. The course was moved back north this year to its old location at Baptist Road on the Santa Fe trail. The course is an out-and-back featuring 5 and 10 mile options. Even though I had missed the first two Winter Series races, I had signed up for the long series and planned to stick with the ten-mile option. Pictures from the trail taken a day earlier had showed a sloppy mess, but local runner John Volhand went out and plowed the entire course. I think I have mentioned before what an amazing running community we have. This is the kind of thing I am talking about: we have an incredible number of people here who are willing to give of their time an talents to make races come together.

WS3 friends

I carpooled to the start with three members of my Pikes Peak Brewery team, Shannon, Halcy and Debby. None of us felt motivated to run. In the five days leading up to the race I had done a 20 mile run and a one hour hard run. I was not feeling particularly rested and ready to race 10 miles, but the weather was perfect and I wanted to hang with my team.

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Pikes Peak Brewery getting photobombed by Fieldhouse members

There really isn’t much to say about my race. We lined up and started running at 10 am. I chatted with a few friends as we started. It was sloppy and got sloppier, muddier and icier the farther north we went. It was kind of difficult footing, but I cannot imagine how it would have been if John had not plowed the trail. We ran north for five miles, then turned around and ran south. Early in the race, Brianne and I chatted. I watched her pass me, and then caught up at the turn-around. She caught back up to me and we pushed each other to the finish. I appreciate the friendly nudges that runners can give each other and since I had kind of been in cruise-control mode, Brianne helped make this more of a race and speed workout for me. I love our our running community! Thanks again, Brianne.

I finished in 1:27:08, which made me 14th female OA and third in my AG for the day. This gave me an extra point for my team, which made me happy. I have missed points for some races but if I can show up and get an AG, then hopefully that helps make up for some of the absences.

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Muddy Legs after the race!

The larger point that I want to make from this report has nothing to do with MY race. It has to do with the Brewer’s Cup and PPRR. At Winter Series 3 and the other races I have attended, I have been blown away by the sense of camaraderie that the Brewer’s Cup has fostered. It is so fun to see teams taking pre-race photos together. It is hilarious to see teams photobombing other team pictures. During the race, as we pass by one another on the out-and-back, we cheer for our team members as well as for other team members. I may not know everyone’s name, but I tried to always say, “Nice job Triple S!” or whichever team shirt I saw. I also had plenty of runners say, “Nice job Pikes Peak!” It is fun to be a part of a friendly and supportive competition that is much larger than one’s self.

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Smiling Toads at the Post-Race festivities at Pikes Peak Brewery.

It is also really fun to go to the social gatherings. I love runners. I love talking to runners and meeting new runners. Under any circumstances, going to a race is a fun experience. The Brewer’s Cup has added tremendously to that experience by fostering friendship, teamwork and friendly competition.

PPB and friends

Our fearless leader, Vanessa Shawver, on the right, with teammates and friends and family at Pikes Peak Brewery.

Hope to see you all at the upcoming races and please do not forget to sign up for the Run to Beat Pancreatic Cancer. Registration is open and we have lots of wonderful prizes for winners and raffle items, thanks for our wonderful sponsors. Find more information here:

http://www.run4projectpurple.org/event/run-to-beat-pancreatic-cancer/