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.