Nine years and two months ago, I sat in a doctor’s office as an oncology nurse presented me a set of four cards. Each card represented one of the four drugs I would soon be administered on a biweekly basis, my chemotherapy regimen for Hodgkin’s Disease. Approaching a decade later, I cannot recall off the top of my head the full names of the drugs represented by the acronym ABVD, but whatever… we may as well call them Atrocious, Blech, Vomitrocious, and Dastardly, because that’s what these drugs are. If you’re not familiar with chemotherapy, the concept in a nutshell is, “we are going to poison you, not quite enough so that it physically kills you, but just enough so that it kills the cancer dwelling inside you.
Keeping in mind that these drugs are really just fine-tuned varieties of poison, the side effects listed on the cards the nurse read to me and gave me make more sense: Severe nausea. Sore throat. Fever. Muscle pain. Bone pain. Extreme tiredness and lethargy. Headaches. Feelings of disorientation and/or confusion. Constipation. And the dreaded “metallic taste.”
As the nurse ran through all of these “probable to occur” side effects, I listened and indicated I fully understood them. She gave me the cards to take home. Later, at home by myself, I read through them again and I laughed at them.
An explanation is probably necessary. There is no denying that the side effects of chemo are no picnic. Some of them, chiefly among them the “metallic taste” – a sensation which can best be described as the taste of an emptied, open can of tuna fish rising into your mouth continuously from the back of your throat – take away any desire you may have had to have a picnic.
I knew these side effects sounded bad. Yet, at the same time, I also knew that bad as they may be, there was no way they could hold a candle to what I’d experienced with Hodgkin’s Disease. Twenty-five pounds of muscle loss in two months. Tiredness. Confusion. Memory loss. Slowed speech. Lack of appetite. Soaking night sweats every two hours. And none of these things were happening to a body on the mend, but one headed towards death if nothing was done to reverse the process. And so, in comparison, the side effects of chemo just sounded funny to me. It was the only way I could get better, so who cares about a little inconvenience? Bring it.
On Monday, I will take to my hometown course to run the Boston Marathon for the second straight year. It will be the 12th marathon I have finished, all of them occurring post-cancer. Six of those 12 will have been run to support cancer charities, including this Boston Marathon for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and its Team In Training program.
Tonight, the Team In Training Boston Marathon team held a start-of-the-weekend Meet and Greet event. Coming from out of town as I did, the one person at this event whom I’d met prior to tonight was my friend Calli, who ran for the charity in Chicago prior to moving to Boston a couple of years ago. Calli and I are both Hodgkin’s survivors, indicated by the fact that we each have the same fading scars from a lymph node biopsy on the right sides of our respective necks. I suppose she is my scar sister and I am her biopsy brother.
Calli’s training season has been complicated by injury, though she will run and finish the race Monday. I asked her tonight how she is feeling about the race, and she said that while she knows it will not be her fastest race, she remembers watching me run the same race last year. She and other friends were stationed in Newton just before Heartbreak Hill. She said tonight that last year when I reached Newton I looked like I was really struggling (and she’s totally right, I was struggling and I ran like hot garbage that day), but she also remembers how happy I was after the race despite the struggle, and how I would call it my favorite race i had ever run. She expects the same for herself on Monday. It will be a battle, but the support and joy of running Boston will carry her through. It will be a great day.
I do not expect to run like hot garbage on Monday. I have done all the “right things” in training the past couple of months. I am feeling and running as well as i have felt and run in probably close to three years. Not to be overlooked, I now know what to expect on the Boston course and not to go out too fast on the downhills of the early miles because they will beat your legs to a pulp before you reach Natick.
Yet, you never know what a given day will bring. It’s conceivable I could cramp up at some point. The weather might play a role. Something entirely unexpected could go wrong at any time. I might, by luck of the draw, happen to draw a day where I am simply not feeling it and I do race like hot garbage. It happens. And, well , bring it.
No matter what happens, Monday will indeed be a great day. When you have driven down a highway and suddenly forgotten your entire drive, when you have sat in bed at night by yourself choking back tears praying just to please feel normal and healthy again one day, when you have been in the vise grip of the most feared disease of our time, and then through the miracles of modern medicine and the grace of God you have made a full recovery to become not merely normal again but stronger and healthier than you were before? After that happens, every day that comes afterwards is a good day.
And any day when you can take your place on the starting line of a marathon, soak in the support of the crowds, and battle through all 26.2 miles of fatigue and pain to reach the finish line? Whatever the day brings, all of it – much like those dreaded chemo drugs – is much less painful than cancer. And any day where you can be part of a marathon is, indeed, a great, great day.
See you at the finish line on Monday, no matter how long it takes. I don’t plan to keep you waiting too long, though.