I just finished my Saturday long run for the week, the first of 2016. When I got in the car after finishing my 48 laps (8 miles) at the indoor track, I flipped on my Pandora station and it immediately began playing Billy Joe Shaver singing “I’m gonna live forever.” This was a bit too ridiculous and maudlin for what I wanted to hear at the moment, so I skipped it and something up-tempo by the Turnpike Troubadours came on instead. Much better.
A few summers ago, the Illinois chapter of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society invited me to speak at its annual dinner as an “honored hero.” I did consider this an honor, but I proceeded to give a 10-minute speech in which the line I repeated over and over was “I’m not a hero.”
And no, as someone who survived cancer and became healthy again, I am not a hero. Perhaps people find my story slightly more uplifting and inspirational than that of someone who gets a root canal at the dentist and then can go back to eating corn on the cob with gusto, but at its core it’s not really all that different. I am just a guy who took his medicine and got better. That’s really the extent of it.
Much like the lone survivor of a car accident that claimed the lives of the other passengers, cancer survivors can feel bouts of survivor’s guilt. Why did I survive and return to a normal life when so many others do not? As great as it feels to be able to run marathons after a bout with Hodgkin’s Disease, it also makes me feel guilty to be happily going along with life as if nothing happened, appearing and feeling as if I had never been sick. You wonder if others will look at you with jealousy and wonder, “why does that guy have it so easy when my brother/mother/uncle/friend/wife didn’t make it?” It’s a weird feeling. And while I am thankful for the new lease on life I’ve been given, that thankfulness is often tempered with a dash of “why me and not then” guilt.
Since cancer chose me to be part of its little club, several friends and acquaintances of mine have had to deal with greater trials than I ever faced. I know multiple people of my own generation who have already survived multiple bouts of cancer. I know women who have survived Stage 4 breast cancer and returned to full health. I know people who have survived Stage 4 leukemia and heart transplants. I have a running friend with an incredibly positive attitude who is back running distances again less than a year after intense bouts of treatment and surgery to remove a tumor from her jaw. My experience was in many ways trivial and easy compared to all of these people. Every one of them will be on my mind when I run to Boston in April.
I consider the people I listed above, whom I didn’t name to respect their privacy but will recognize themselves if and when they read this, to be closer to heroes than I am. But the real heroes to me are the doctors and scientists who have developed the treatments that made it possible for any of us to win our battles. They are the heroes who most deserve our praise and support, and they are the ones – along with the oncologists and nurses who treat us today – I feel indebted to above all when I run to support the fight against cancer.
Miles Run Today: 8
Days to Boston Marathon: 107