September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Each day a different guest blogger will be featured who will generously share their personal experience with childhood cancer. Stories are always more potent than statistics.
By Lynn Simons
“Hey Mom, it was a good thing that tumor was in my ribs, rather than in my leg. If it was in my leg, they would have cut my leg off and I would not be able to run.”
Hannah is a high school long distance runner, tall and exceptionally lean, who flies over trails and fields. Cross county running requires runners to brave the heat of hot summer, breathing humid air, and propelling themselves through tall fields of weeds and mud. In summer and early fall, runners hope the trail leads into the woods so that they can cool off in the shade of trees. By the end of the season, fall is nearly gone, and cold sleet rains down on runners, running down their necks, and getting sucked into their mouths as they gulp for air.
It’s a tough sport.
You compete as a team, but each girl has a personal time record she wants to beat. Each course is different, some with large hills and some with so many twists and turns, you fear you may get lost. Each race has its own character, based on the runners, and how the runners pace themselves. Follow the fast leader too long and your own energy is depleted.
As a freshman in high school, Hannah made varsity by the end of the season, sailing past upper-classmates, and claiming her spot of honor on the varsity team. After the official season was done, she ran on her own throughout the fall and winter, and began working out in February and March to take advantage of long distance races in the spring. Running in Michigan in the winter is a cold and lonely experience.
The week Hannah’s lung collapsed and she was rushed to the emergency room with the tumor compressing her heart, she had been running 5K’s earlier in the week. Not that the signs weren’t there. She had a lot of pain and was sneaking Tylenol so that she could keep running. The fevers, fatigue and shortness of breath, she just chocked up to lack of training. Until the lung collapsed. Then Hannah decided she really could not catch her breath.
The tumor was a rare bone tumor, growing in her ribs, nestled up to her lungs and heart. It was a long spring and summer of chemotherapy, surgeries, and hospitalizations. The picture of the cross country team went on each hospitalization, posted on the wall to motivate Hannah of where she wanted to be. By late summer, practice started for the other girls, and Hannah was recovering from a lung resection, removal of four ribs, and a much compromised immune system from ongoing chemotherapy. Her platelets were too low to run, so she decided to ride a bike for practice, along side the runners, who graciously stuck to the open roads for those practices. It was probably a rare occurrence for the pediatric oncologists, who got the sports physical form from a determined fifteen year old who looked them in the eye, and told them, “Sign here and say it is OK.”
That fall, the team lined up on the starting line for the race. All the girls anticipated the long course, and had been anticipating tough competition. One girl in the lineup also worried if her wig would stay on if she ran fast, and would she be able to run the whole race. One Mom stood in the crowd, knowing she was not allowed to cry, crying anyway, and watching her daughter fly by, near the end of the crowded runners.
Hannah had a slow but steady pace, and was winded before the first curve, and no where to be seen when the runners came out of a patch of woods. This race ended too soon for Hannah, with breakfast spewed off to the side, and the effects of chemotherapy taking its toll on her body. As the season progressed, Hannah ran less and less, losing too much body weight and not being able to gain enough weight back in between chemotherapy cycles.
Chemotherapy ended that winter, and the respite lasted only three months before the official verdict was relapse with metastases to the lungs. Hannah heard the news, collapsing into tears. “But I want to go to school and I want to run.”
None of the treatment options held much hope, so Hannah chose quality of life, and forged together a treatment plan that involved less long hospital stays far away from home. The cross county season started that year while Hannah was recovering from another lung resection, more chemotherapy and full lung radiation. Initially, she was too tired to run, but showed up at practices to ride her bike and she went to the meets to cheer her team on. She built strength and decided to try another race, promising her coach to run a mile and discreetly drop out.
That same Mom watched the girls take off, and watched as one girl, clearly visible at the back of the pack, with a face as white as a ghost and nearly fluorescent pink shoes head for the mile marker. And not drop out. Hannah seemed oblivious to the crowds, and it was hard to discern if she was hurting too bad to respond, or was too determined to get sidetracked. The two mile marker came, and the girls headed into the woods. That Mom ran to where the girls were coming out of the woods to head to the finish line and waited for a skinny, skinny girl, to appear on the trail.
Several girls cut their races short, cut through a field, and headed for the finish line, choosing victory over integrity. And still Hannah did not come. Mom’s tears were running down her face and fear was beating her heart. And then, there she was, rounding the trail and moving toward the finish line in those fluorescent pink running shoes. The crowd lined the finish line on both sides and cheered that girl on, and she was flying again, running with the roar in her ears and the finish line in sight. Later, Hannah noted, “It’s a whole lot harder to run 5K slowly than it is to run it quickly.”
The rest of that season passed, and Hannah had to settle for the goal of running one race. The cumulative effects of the radiation, surgeries and ongoing chemotherapy had taken their toll and she was too thin, and too tired, to run with the team. By May, Hannah finished chemotherapy, again, and waited for the June scans. The physician just handed her the scan report, and then, because of its length, showed Hannah the conclusion, “No Evidence of Disease.” That season she was the Captain of the cross country team, voted as a leader by her teammates. That Mom still cried, she had not changed a bit. And Hannah still ran.
Hannah said, “How much does a funeral cost?” She was studying legacies at school. “I’d rather spend funeral money on a piece of land where animals can roam and no one can build. And, I’d put a running trail on it, winding through the woods, so people could go to a beautiful place and run.”
The cancer came and stayed. The girl runs in her dreams.
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