Last October after
having moved to Ottawa, I decided to sign up for one of the Running Room's
running clinics. I didn’t know
very many people in Ottawa, and so I figured it would be a good way to meet
people with similar interests. I started off with a 10km clinic and by
January I was ready to try my hand at the half-marathon group.
I was a
bit nervous, and wasn't quite sure how it would be training through the
freezing cold winters in Ottawa. I had only done one 10km race, and the
whole half marathon seemed to be a bit of a daunting task, but I was ready to
give it a shot.
By March I
had met several good friends in the clinic and started to look forward to our
long Sunday runs even though most mornings it was freezing!
race approached, I battled with a few minor injuries, but kept on with the
training. Getting out for the runs made me feel great inside and out!
30th, just four weeks before the Ottawa ING Half Marathon (my goal race), I
went out for some speed training on the track with my group. I had
a horrible headache that particular night, and by the time we started the
speed drills I felt myself getting a bit disoriented from the pain. Midway
through the drills I got separated from my group and ended up running
alone. By the end of the session my head hurt so much I thought I might
pass out. I managed to get myself back to my car and immediately drove
home. Once at home I started to panic a bit, and so I decided to call my
boyfriend. As we were on the phone, suddenly he heard a loud THUMP and
then nothing. Thankfully he had a key to my place and so he rushed over
immediately and found me unconscious on my living room floor.
rushed to the hospital and given a cat scan. When the doctor came in I
could tell from the look on her face that the news wasn't good. "Are
your parents here dear?" she asked. I shook my head to indicate no.
Well I have some bad news, and I need someone here with you before I can tell
you she said. She called my boyfriend in instead and then delivered
the news. It hit me hard and
fast, but I was strangely calm. I had been diagnosed with a brain tumour
and was going to need emergency surgery.
could this happen I thought? I'm only 23, I'm so healthy, and I have my
whole life ahead of me.
I met with
the surgeon the next morning, and by that time my parents had arrived in
town. I was going to need brain
surgery and I was going to need it soon.
The location of the tumour made it difficult to remove, so after some
thought, the surgeon decided it was best if he did the surgery awake.
AWAKE??? Are you insane??? This is the stuff of horror
movies. I begged and pleaded with
him. But doctor, I have a
race in 3 weeks and I’ve been training all winter for this! Do you think I’ll still be able to do
it??? No he said, you won’t be
running for several months if not longer.
Clearly this race didn’t mean as much to him as it did to me.
later, on May 7th, 2008 I was rolled into the operating room. My surgery took close to 11 hours, and
as planned, I was awake for the whole thing. I was able to talk, and move my hands and legs somewhat, but
my head was bolted to the table to prevent it from moving.
I had a pretty fun time in the OR.
I had met some great nurses on the neurosurgery floor of the hospital
and a few of them came down to visit me during surgery. We talked and laughed, listened to
Mariah Carey on my iPod stereo and even took pictures! About 6 hours into the surgery I asked
the anesthesiologist if I could call my Dad. He was stunned by the question, but excited at the same
time. He went and got a phone and
sure enough I called my Dad from the OR to give him an update on the surgery.
the end of the surgery some of the freezing started to wear off and the pain
came rushing in like a tidal wave.
The anesthesiologist rushed to give me some drugs through my IV, but
since I had been awake for the surgery, I didn’t have any breathing tubes
in. This posed a bit of a problem,
and so for the last part of the surgery the anesthesiologist sat in front of me
and acted as my breathing coach to make sure that I wouldn’t stop breathing.
few days after the surgery were pretty brutal. It felt as though someone had beaten me over the head with a
sledgehammer. I was taking
morphine every couple hours and I tried desperately to get comfortable enough
to sleep without the right side of my head touching the pillow. My Mom tried to get me to eat a bit,
but I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to get a spoon in from all the
swelling. Not only that, but the
surgery had also affected my visual pathway and so I kept seeing strange
flashing lights out of the corner of my right eye. I was told this was normal, but I couldn’t help but find it
few days I started to feel better, and by the weekend I was allowed to go
home. The doctors said that I
should try and walk a little if possible and so the day after I got home my
parents and I headed out for a walk.
With each step I felt stronger.
“I can do this” I thought. I
will walk everyday and on the 24th I will run the race.
my training plans came to an immediate halt when my surgeon advised me that
there was to be NO RUNNING! My
brain would take quite some time to heal and running could cause some
potentially serious problems with all the swelling. I was devastated.
This race meant the world to me, and I wanted nothing more than to
A few days later the
pathology report was in and once again we headed back to the surgeon’s
office. The news was bad….very
bad. I had a stage 4 cancerous
tumour (the most aggressive type of tumour) and the chances of regrowth were
high. I was going to need to start
rounds of chemotherapy and radiation immediately.
It’s as though the
news kept getting worse! First, no
race and now cancer. I wasn’t sure how much more I could handle.
the afternoon feeling sorry for myself, but by the next morning my mood had
changed. They don’t know me, I
thought. They don’t know what I’m capable
of. I don’t care what they
think! I’m going to do this race
and I’m going to beat this cancer!
days after the surgery I started chemo and radiation. The chemo wasn’t so bad, but the first radiation treatment
was terrible and I wasn’t sure how I would hold up. The radiation technician told me to expect to suffer from
severe fatigue during the treatment, and that most patients take two to three
naps per day during the treatment and for several months afterwards.
have the energy to go for a walk, let alone run she told me. I could tell by the look on her face
that she felt sorry for me, and figured I was too naïve to know what I was up
against. Even the strongest and
healthiest people get knocked down from these treatments she lectured, but my motto was and still is “it’s not
how many times you fall down in life that matters….it’s how many times you get
back up.” And that’s exactly what
I was going to do. Life might have
temporarily knocked me down, but damnit, I was going to keep getting back
up. It was going to take a hell of
a lot more than a brain tumour to take me down!
So on the morning of
the race, just 17 days after my surgery and already on chemo and radiation I
laced up my running shoes and I showed up at the start line. I didn’t care what they said, if I
couldn’t run it, I would walk it!
And walk it I did. I walked
all 21km’s as fast as my two little legs could carry me. When I hit 20km I took off my ball cap
and exposed my semi bald head and then I ran like never before to that finish
line. I ran for all the people who
told me that I couldn’t do it, for all the people who said I would be too
tired, too weak, too sick. I
crossed that finish line with more emotion than I’ve ever felt in my whole
life. I had done it, I had really
done it. With a time of 2:43:58, I
had come in first place in my age category for walkers.
A few days after the
race, with a renewed sense of hope, I decided to undertake the mother of all
races. I was going to train for
the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in September.
I was going to do it
through the heat of the summer, through the chemo and radiation and through the
emotional ups and downs of my hormone therapy. I had to do it.
I had to prove it to everyone that it could be done, and more importantly
than that, I had to prove it to myself.
If I could do this, I could do anything.
To me cancer seemed
more like a mental battle than a physical one. The doctors were quick to tell me all the horrible things
that might happen, but if you listen it’s just a self fulfilling prophecy in my
opinion. I guess that’s why I
relate to running so well, because it’s sort of the same thing. Sure, running a marathon is a physical
test of endurance, but more than that it’s a mental hurdle. When you get tired and you’re hurting
and you want to give up, you need to be strong enough mentally to push through
and keep going. And that’s what I
did, each and everyday of the summer with my mother by my side.
There were some days
where I was exhausted, and others where I felt sick to my stomach. The chemo caused a lot of stomach upset
for the runs, and by a few weeks in, I could no longer eat before going
running. Any attempt at food often
lead to a panicked frenzy as we tried to find the closest bathroom. Instead I started taking along an
electrolyte drink similar to Gatorade, and that seemed to help.
Although my Mom had
three marathons under her belt, it had been almost a decade since she had last
run and I could tell she was overwhelmed.
The distance was too far too soon, and her poor little legs weren’t used
to the training. It was obvious
that her whole body ached and as much as I loved her for coming out and doing
it with me, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her when I saw her try to walk
down the stairs after our long runs.
She was a great sport
though, and the best teammate I could have ever asked for. It didn’t matter how much she was
hurting, when it was time to run, she strapped on her shoes and out we went. We had more fun together running,
sweating, complaining and limping than we’d ever had before.
By August I was
feeling strong and ready to undertake this huge challenge that lay just six
short weeks away. Then out of
nowhere came the knee pain. It
started as a dull ache, but after a week or two, it lead to a throbbing pain on
the outside of my knee. I went to
physiotherapy and it turned out that I had illiotibial friction syndrome. This is NOT what I needed!
I went religiously
for my treatments, and started doing a lot more stretching. I had taken to using a heating pad, and
also starting going for ART (active release technique) therapy. By September I felt a lot better, but
my left knee would still give me problems on the longer runs.
Once again determined
to do the race, I pushed through.
I iced, I heated, I stretched, I rested, I did everything and
anything. I was too close to give
up now. I was going to do that
race and if I had to crawl across the finish line then so be it, as long as I
There had been a time
when doing it fast meant everything to me, but after what I had endured over
the summer, none of that mattered anymore. I didn’t care if I was faster than my teammates or if I
could qualify for Boston, all I cared about was finishing. In the end, you’re only competing
against yourself right? And the
fact that I was even attempting it on radiation and chemo was more than most
The day finally
arrived. The morning started off
cool, but the forecast called for a warm sunny afternoon. My Mom and I and 15,000 other runners
gathered at the start line. At
7:30am the gun fired and we were off!
For the first 20km I
felt great! My Mom and I were
keeping a fast even pace and thankfully my knee wasn’t hurting. By 25km the sun started to really beat
down on us and I cursed myself for not wearing a tank top! Once we hit 30km the fatigue set
in. I hadn’t eaten before the race
and the electrolytes just weren’t giving me enough calories or energy to keep
going. We passed a few gel
stations, but not having trained with them, I didn’t want to try them out for
the first time on race day.
Once we hit 35km I
thought for sure I would have to stop.
I might still be able to finish, but it would have to be walking because
there was no way I could keep running.
I was exhausted and over heating and each step took every ounce of my
energy. My butt was cramping and my feet were screaming out with pain.
Then we hit the
cheering station and hundreds of people who saw the huge scar on my head began cheering out for
me! Go Sarah! Go Sarah! You can do it! You’re awesome!!!! Don’t give up! It almost brought tears to my eyes, and
it certainly did bring tears to my Mothers eyes. She looked at me and said, “You can do this Sarah, you’re
almost there, don’t give up baby.”
And so I closed my eyes and I ran.
I thought of all the doctors and all the nurses who told me that I
couldn’t do it, all the people who said my cancer would kill me. I was going to do it, I had to do it,
for me, for them, for anyone who’s ever undergone cancer and knows what it’s
like to lie awake at night filled with fear and anxiety about what the future
holds. So I kept on and before
long I could see the big signs 700m to go, 500m to go, 200m to go, 100m to
go! I could see it now, I could
see the finish! The fans were
cheering, I was going to do it, WE were going to do it. I grabbed my Mom’s hand and we ran as
fast as we could until we crossed that finish line.
I cannot even begin
to explain the euphoria that overtook us as we crossed. We reached for each other and we
hugged, and we cried, and we laughed and we cried and we hugged some more. We had done it. We had run 42.2km side by side. I couldn’t help it, so I looked at my
watch, but the time didn’t really matter.
It had taken us 4:44:32, and I couldn’t have been happier.
2008 is a day I will never forget.
I learned a lot of important lessons over the summer, but more than
anything I learned that impossible is nothing. It doesn’t matter what the challenge is, whether it’s completing
a marathon, asking someone out on a date, or beating cancer, if you want it bad
enough, you can do it.
So remember. Just
when the caterpillar thought the world was over….she became a butterfly.