The Incredible Feeling of Being the Last Runner

As most of you know, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 27. My cancer battle wasn’t easy; actually, I don’t think anyone’s cancer battle is easy but it seems people think some of us had it easier because we didn’t die or we “look normal” now. Cancer is a life-threatening, life-altering illness no matter what the stage. Those of us who survive, often face life-long side effects that can make routine things quite complicated if not impossible.

I think most people don’t realize that cancer rarely comes alone and that the treatments that may cure you will leave you with a variety of problems you never even thought of. My cancer battle was complicated by blood clots to my heart and lungs that left me weak and fatigued for months; the treatments did their job but also left me with life-long side effects. Yes, as expected chemotherapy had me throwing up at all hours of the day and radiation did cause menopause (hot flashes and all) killing any chance of motherhood and other problems started popping up shortly after; but chemo had an extra gift for me: peripheral neuropathy.

The first time I noticed “my balance was off,” was at church while I was walking to the front after a pastor made a call; I remember swerving as I was walking down the aisle, it looked as if I was drunk… I simply couldn’t walk a straight line. Within a few days I started experiencing this weird sensation in my hands and legs, they felt as if I had gloves and high boots on, they were numb. And then, things just went downhill; my handwriting resembled that of my mother’s first grade students and I started to need help getting dressed because I couldn’t hook my own bra or button my own clothes. I needed support walking and driving was completely out of the question since I was unable to gauge how much pressure to put on the gas or brake pedal. I was falling all over the place; one minute I was standing right in front of you and the next I was falling down because my legs would not hold me. Things got so bad that I once cut my foot open while closing a screen door and didn’t feel the cut at all. The only indication I had of the cut was blood pouring out of my foot, I actually required stitches! After many tests involving lots needles and vibrating objects, the Physiatrist diagnosed me with peripheral neuropathy and told me it was not curable. He explained that the chemo acted as a poison in the body and it had affected my peripheral nerves and there wasn’t anything he could do to cure it. His only recommendation was to take a vitamin B complex daily and see if that helped. I bought the vitamins even though I was completely discouraged.

To this day I don’t know if I was misdiagnosed or if a miracle had happened (I lean towards this last one). But even though it took years, things did improve and the day came when I my handwriting was once again legible and I was back to wearing high heels (believe me, this is important for any Puerto Rican girl). The only reminder I have of those days when I was unable to walk without support are the scar on my right foot and a very firm and loud gait.

So, there you have it. THAT is why being able to run has been huge for me, HUGE!!! I mean, I never ran a day in my life prior to cancer. I used my asthma card faithfully to get out of PE all through middle school and high school. After what I’ve been through, after all that cancer did to my body, being able to run is extremely meaningful. It has been difficult, quite challenging, and even frustrating at times but I still love running it and the feeling of crossing the finish line after every single 5k and 10k I’ve taken on.

This year I took on the challenge of running one of The North Face Endurance Challenge half-marathons and I trained faithfully. For months, I woke up early for training runs, even on Sundays; but I was rewarded by cooler temperatures and incredible sunrises. I learned to love the feeling of running in the quiet hours of the morning when the neighbors are still sleeping and even though at times my body ached, I would summon the strength to pull through.

And so on the particularly hot morning of Sept 16th, 2018 I started running my first half-marathon. I knew early on that I would be the last runner to cross the finish line; but I also knew that no matter what, I would cross that finish line and I would celebrate it as if it was a 1st place win. I started on wave 4 with many other runners and somewhere around mile 2 or 3 every single runner had passed me. At some point I lost sight of all runners in front of me and I ran alone for miles. I must confess that I walked every rocky hill but I ran as much of the flat and downhill terrain as I could. I was slow but I was steady. The race crew encouraged me on every single aid station and reminded me that I was doing well. At some point I started hearing voices behind me, I thought for a moment there were other runners behind me, not such luck, it was the crew picking up signage and markings after I, the last runner, passed them, ha! I kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other; a slow but steady pace. I would eventually come across other runners and by that I mean all the runners making their loop back to the start/finish line; they encouraged me as they flew by. I kept moving forward, slow and steady… Eventually I caught up to the couple in front of me and was able to keep up with them for the last few miles; in the end, they finished 2 minutes ahead of me; they too worked hard to complete this run. I was so, so happy to see the finish line and I ran to it as fast as I could.  I can’t describe the pure joy that moment brought to me… how much it meant… I crossed that finish line 3 hours and 31 seconds after I started; I was in fact dead last but oh what a sweet, sweet victory!

As I look back I realize I have come a long way. My body has been changed forever and it will never work as well as it did before cancer but I have learned to live in it and try to keep it as healthy as possible. Every run counts, even if I’m the last one, my body is able to run. I am grateful.

Dear reader, you can prevent cervical cancer. Please schedule your Pap and HPV tests regularly and make sure you vaccinate your children against HPV and protect them against the virus which has been linked to 6 different types of cancer. For more information visit www.cervivor.org. To read more about Maria’s cervical cancer journey, visit the link to her Cervivor story here

 

 

On Being a Survivor and a Cervivor

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Team Cervivor recently reached out to our private online community, looking for cervical cancer survivors, who were also breast cancer survivors. We wondered about their perspective and wanted to highlight a voice that knows first-hand what it’s like to have these two devastating cancers. We were shocked that we had quite a few women respond to us that fit this description! Karen North replied and graciously gave us a peak into what her journey has been like as both a breast and cervical cancer survivor and what she wants others to know.

Tell us about your cancer diagnoses?

Karen’s chemo blanket.

I was shocked to be diagnosed with very early stage left breast cancer at the age of 45 in 2014. I had no family history, no symptoms, nothing. I elected to have a double mastectomy because I didn’t want to ever worry about it coming back. I chose not to have reconstruction. I am comfortable with my surgery decision.

When I was diagnosed with invasive endocervical adenocarcinoma early 2016 my world shattered. I was faithful with my well woman exams, late sometimes-sure. I had no idea that I had HPV. I didn’t have any signs or a single clue of any issues. Then my plans for a radical hysterectomy were derailed due to the growth of my cervix in just one month. I was detoured onto taking the chemo-radiation train.  It’s a train that I will never de-board, I just change cars a lot.

Women’s cancer, men’s cancer…. it’s all cancer. Cancer education, prevention, and regular screening is the key. Without regular screening where would I be now? If I didn’t share my story many of my friends would not have done their screening. It’s okay to ask your healthcare provider about HPV immunizations. Showing embarrassment is better than being ignorant.

Karen’s breast cancer awareness shirt.

What has your recovery been like?

As if you can’t tell, I have a cruel sense of humor. I tell people that I’m a cancer overachiever and refuse to be a cancer trifecta. I still feel haunted by the cervical cancer. Dealing with the constant changes in my life after chemo and radiation is daunting every second of every day. The physical and mental toll can overwhelm me sometimes. The breast cancer doesn’t haunt me. I look at it from the perspective of not having deal with breasts or a bra is easy except for selecting clothes. (With the frequent Mother Nature heat waves, I don’t need any extra padding.)

What do you want people to know about breast and cervical cancer?

The lame excuse of being too ‘busy’ for screening is BULL. My reply to them is, “Normal busy life is chump change in contrast to cancer and post-cancer life.” I have even gone as far as telling people to pull their big girl panties up! I also want people outside of the cancer community to be mindful that their words matter. Using phrases like, “You don’t look sick” or “You’re over reacting” are not helpful and feel very dismissive of our experience. Many times, survivors carry scars that are not visible. Cancer doesn’t just go away. The fear is always there, sometimes louder on some days than others, but always there.

What do you want the cancer community, survivors and caregivers to know?

My wish for those with cancer, living with cancer, and those who are NED (no evidence of disease) is that they know they aren’t alone. Yes, it can be uncomfortable reaching out of the bubble. However, doing so allows you to vent those deep dark thoughts, fears, anger, etc. I like to picture a collection of bubbles and its unique connection between each one. What a beautiful display of what it’s like when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and reach out for support. My wish for the family and friends is just to be there and be in the moment. Don’t judge. Be ready for emotions to change sometimes every second. Listen, love and laugh. Create a caregiver network for the surprise emergencies, so you’re not doing it all on your own. It’s okay to ask for help. I would also tell family and friends, not to be afraid of being afraid. Don’t hide your emotions. Caregivers showing weakness can help the survivor understand that it’s okay to vulnerable.

Thank you Karen for being open and honest about what it’s like to face both a cervical cancer and breast cancer diagnosis. We appreciate you sharing your experience with us and giving us an up close and personal perspective. 

Karen North lives in Liberty, Missouri. She is a retired registered nurse. Her world is her family, fur-babies, and friends. She is a four-year breast cancer survivor and a two-year cervical cancer survivor.