Confronting the Anniversary Challenge

Even if you’re healthy, cancer anniversaries can bring tears to your eyes.

These emotional landmines come in many forms. The day that you suspected something was wrong. The date of diagnosis, start of treatment, or end of treatment. The day that you knew nothing would ever be the same.

The Saint Patrick's Road Race

The 43rd Saint Patrick’s Road Race, a 10K on March 17, 2018, in Holyoke, Mass., was one of those days for me. It marked 15 years since my fatigue in running the hilly race led to the doctor visit that led to my leukemia diagnosis.

I ran it several times since my diagnosis and stem cell transplant in 2003, starting two years from the end of treatment, when I felt so triumphant you might have thought I had won an Olympic medal. In 2012 I did pretty well, but then came a break due to plantar fasciitis, the crippling heel pain that sidelined me from my favorite activities, tennis and running.

Last year, I wasn’t in shape but thought that I could do it anyway. I did, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. (I finished but looked so bedraggled at the end that a race official asked if I needed a ride. I said no, but my kids, who were waiting for me, each took an arm and walked me over the finish line.)

This year I knew I wasn’t in shape for it, though I have been running shorter distances and might build up to it. Still, I wanted to be involved. So I chauffeured my 32-year-old son around. I took him and a friend to the race and drove him afterwards to a bar where he met friends for the traditional post-race beer (or two). He had supported me when I was running and he wasn’t; I can still see him cheering me on at the finish line. He helped me finish strong.

Focusing on what I can do

Doing something useful kept me from dwelling on what I couldn’t do – run 6.2 miles – and on what had happened to me after that race 15 years ago.

I can’t say I always do it, but over the years I’ve tried to focus on what I can do and not on what I can’t. And when I have a pity party, I’m lucky to know people who will set me straight.

For example, when I was admitted to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for my first round of chemotherapy, I asked a nurse where patients exercised. When she said "The Pike," I thought she meant the nearby Massachusetts Turnpike. But she was referring to a long corridor connecting medical offices, with each one marked by a Turnpike-like sign.

Chemotherapy for leukemia involves being hospitalized for weeks at a time. I would have three rounds, separated by rest periods at home, culminating in a stem cell transplant about six months from the start of treatment.

My immune system would quickly be suppressed, and I wouldn’t be able to go outside. My spirits were lifted when I knew I wouldn’t be stuck in my room. Shortly after admittance, I took the first of what was to be many walks along the Pike, where I would drag my IV pole and do runners’ stretches at each end.

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