It was mile 19 of the Marine Corps marathon in DC in 2004. Even though the race always takes place during the last weekend of October, this one was the hottest on record. I clearly remember it happening: There was a huge pop in my head like I was going up a mountain in a car and I had to clear my ears. The pressure was so intense.
My running gait changed, almost like I was drunk, and I was swaying back and forth hitting other runners. Still, I thought I was dehydrated from the heat and I pushed to finish those last seven miles. After the race, I tried to hydrate.
The next day, I went to work. I’d run five or six marathons before, and it wasn’t unusual for me to run a marathon and then go back the next day. As an assistant to a cabinet member in Washington D.C., I facilitated my boss’s major appointments, and kept track of phone numbers and meetings.
But that Monday through Wednesday, he missed key appointments because of me. I couldn’t walk straight. I couldn’t think straight. I hopped on the train to go home one day and accidentally went to Maryland instead of Virginia where I live.
That’s when my boss sat me down. He said that something was wrong—and it wasn’t dehydration. So I saw my doctor in D.C. At first, he thought I had an inner ear issue that was affecting my balance. But he consulted with my old physician in Pennsylvania, where I grew up, who said that the symptoms I was having just didn’t sound like…me. He asked for them to do an MRI.
A week later, I was in the office working and I got a call from my doctor. He told me I needed to go in. But I was busy, so I convinced him to give me my results over the phone. He told me the MRI showed I had a frontal lobe brain tumor.
When I got the diagnosis, I didn’t know what brain cancer was. I sat there in disbelief. I was in D.C. by myself because my family was in Pennsylvania. My mom is a recovered alcoholic of 30 years. She’s also one of my best friends. I didn’t want to tell my parents because the outlook was not good, and I didn’t want her to turn to the bottle. So it wasn’t until a few weeks before my first brain surgery in April of 2005 that I told them. I don’t think I’d do it any different. Alcoholism is a disease, and I was afraid of what would happen.
My brain surgeon told me that I shouldn’t expect to run again. He said that because of where the tumor was, I’d have memory and speech issues. My tumor rests on my left optical nerve, so after my first surgery, I lost almost 90 percent of my sight in my left eye.
A few days after that surgery, when I was in ICU, I also found out that my doctors also had to take out my pituitary gland, which meant I couldn’t have children. I also had a stroke on my left side after that that operation. I still have seizures to this day, and every time I do, I fall down on my left side. It’s a weak area of my body.
That first year was really tough for me. I learned to talk again, but I was whiny and unhappy with life. Three months after that first surgery, I was rehabbing back home in Pennsylvania and I decided to sign up for a 5K. My mom and sister wanted me to walk it.
Halfway through, I heard my father’s voice and it took me back to the time I played field hockey and soccer as a girl. He told me to start running and pick up the pace. So I did. From that time forward, I knew I was going to be okay. I didn’t finish fast. I probably ran 18-minute miles. My head was bandaged up and I had no hair. That experience got me to the starting line of the 2005 Marine Corps Marathon. And I’ve done that race every year since then. That course will not beat me.
(The Slim, Sexy, Strong Workout DVD is the fast, flexible workout you’ve been waiting for!)
A couple years later, during Christmas of 2007, I had a second brain surgery. My tumor is like a block of ice that they have to chip away at. But it will always be there. The tail or the tumor is wrapped around a major blood vessel in my brain. If they cut it, it will kill me. This is my life now.
Because of the brain cancer, my brain can’t control my bladder, so I’ve also had to have bladder reconstructive surgery. I have to self-catheter, which means I have to insert a tube into my bladder to drain my urine. It’s a big part of my journey because when I’m running, this affects my ability to take in fluids and stay hydrated. I can’t just go to a porta potty because I’m at an increased risk of infections. It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s something I deal with.
During this time, I did two or three marathons a year, plus some half marathons and 10-mile races. I also completed the Eagleman Half Marathon a number of times and finished two full distance Ironman races.
In 2012 I competed in the Ironman World Championship. I like epic challenges, and I was looking to do something just as epic to inspire and advocate for brain cancer.
About a year and a half ago, my friend showed me the World Marathon Challenge site, where you run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. I contacted ABC2 (Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure), a D.C.-based venture philanthropy non-profit about my idea. I didn’t think we’d get approval. It was such a huge task! They told me if I got the go-ahead from all of my doctors, they would be behind me. I wanted to raise money to help find a cure for brain cancer.
I went to my doctors, and first up was my brain surgeon, Dr. Henry Brem at Johns Hopkins. He said that if anyone could do it, it was me. My other physicians were on board, too.
I learned I was accepted as an entrant and spent the next year training with the same trainer who coached me through the Ironman World Championships. It was intense, to say the least. I’d get up at 3 or 3:30 in the morning and run, often on the treadmill, since it can be dangerous running outside in the dark being blind in one eye. Then, I’d get on my triathlon bike and do spinning. I’d go to work and run stairs. I’d come home and do yoga and either swim or do core work. In all, it was three or four workouts a day.
On January 23, 2017 I ran the first marathon in Union Glacier, Antarctica. The day before, I had met a gentleman who had just spent the last four weeks trekking the continent. He said he wanted to cross-country ski the 26.2 miles with me to encourage me to keep going, hand me my water bottle, etc. We became instant friends. I had to run through snowdrifts up to my knees. I was scared, but felt so much more comfortable with him by my side.
That afternoon we took off for Punta Arenas in Chile, which was so much warmer to say the least. The next day was Miami, which was the best. I had such a big cheering section because my parents and friends came down from Pennsylvania and Virginia. That gave me the boost to tackle the next four.
Madrid, Spain marked my fastest marathon, which was also the hilliest. I had just come from this high of seeing my parents. Marrackech, Morocco was incredibly beautiful and humbling. One girl came out to run with me on the course and she was dressed in a hijab—she said she wanted to prove that women can run, too.
Dubai, the fifth race, was the hardest. It was so hot that I had to put ice on my neck and down my chest. I listened to my body and slowed down. I wasn’t competing anyway. I was just out there to do it.
The whole thing went by so fast. Soon I was doing my last lap in Sydney. I couldn’t believe it was over, and it was sad. In fact, I wanted to keep running after the finish line.
The whole time, I felt this runner’s high. My head was in it—I was thinking of kids and adults with cancer. From the neck down, though, I felt it wasn’t me running. Throughout the races, I wore these hand-designed New Balance shoes that were dedicated to 14 brain cancer survivors, and they carried me through. You can see more at #Selfeet. (Get it?)
Even after running 183 miles, the only thing that hurt was my left and right little toes—they were so blistered and raw. And I lost 14 pounds because I just had no appetite. But you know what? I feel pretty good. A week later, I ran six miles along the Potomac River with a running group.
To date, I’ve raised $900,000 for brain cancer research in hopes of reaching my $1 million goal.
My finish line isn’t until someone reports there’s a cure for cancer. But for me, I’d love to go into space next if that became possible. I wanted to do Everest or Mount Kilimanjaro, but my doctors won’t allow it; the pressure on my brain would be too severe. More realistically, I’d like to hike El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that extends from France to Spain.
I have more surgeries ahead of me. We have to correct my bladder first and foremost. But as I think back to this challenge, it feels good to be the only USA woman to complete the World Marathon Challenge this year and the first ever in the books to do it with cancer. I hope it gives hope and inspiration to other people. If I can tell my story and help, that’s what I’ll do. This was never about me. It truly was about raising awareness and finding a cure.
Previous Published : Click Here