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Alright, everybody put on your reading glasses and say it with me: Coccidiomycosis.
Okay, you didn’t get it right? Let’s try phonetic. COK-SID-EE-O-MY-KO-SIS.
That’s the medical term for what was trying to kill me in June and July of 2004.
Diagnosed with Cancer
I was working a night shift at the hospital. I was a nurse in the cardiac surgery ICU, which was always busy. I hadn’t been feeling well all night. My nurse friends and some of the surgeons were trying to convince me to go to the ER. I was being stubborn, but in the back of my mind was worried. I had been fatigued for about two weeks, and was having a hard time breathing. My chest hurt.
Finally, at about 6am, I caved and headed to the ER. An old buddy of mine checked me out. He drew some labs and we waited for a chest x-ray. I anxiously awaited the ER doc to show up in my room and give me the all clear, and tell me to head home and get some rest. It didn’t happen. I soon noticed a group of physicians gathering outside my room, and no one seemed to want to come in. My nurse/friend John was now avoiding me. Something was wrong.
My obstetrician had shown up outside my door. What the heck was she doing there? I was six months pregnant at the time, but was not in the ER for anything baby related. About ten minutes later she walked in and pulled up a chair. We had known one another many years and she looked like she was about to cry. “Jenn, your chest x-ray looks bad. There is a mass in your lung. It is very suspicious looking. A lung specialist is on his way.” A little while later a good friend and lung doctor showed up and read my CT scan results. “It looks very suspicious for cancer. I’m sorry”.
24 hours later I was waking up in an anaesthesia-stupor after having a tube stuck down my throat for biopsies of my lungs, and a 12-inch needle stuck through my back and into the mass from the outside, also for biopsy. I remember laying in my room alone and thinking that this could not be happening.
Friends were coming by and their looks of sadness and pity started a fire in me that has never gone out. “I’m not going out like this” I kept thinking. “I have not done nearly enough to give back and inspire. I was born to do more than this. I’m going to do more than this.”
I’m going to run a marathon
Two weeks later, I told my best friend, “If I make it out of here, I think I’m going to run a marathon”. I told my family the same. Let’s just say not everyone was convinced. They were happy to give me a pitying “good luck”, but they knew Jenn.
I lived on Mountain Dew and Skittles as primary forms of nutrition
I had never been a runner save for one year on the junior high track team. I had smoked for ten years before I had children. I lived on Mountain Dew and Skittles as primary forms of nutrition. I was about 15 pounds underweight. I was NOT a runner. And the looks I got from friends and family alike told me that they could not quite see the vision I was forming in my head.
Many, many weeks later, I was laying in my hospital bed and had just gotten permission to start doing laps around the unit. I remember dragging my oxygen tank and feeling resentment toward the pitying looks from the nurses. It was so incredibly hard to be on the other side – now the one needing care and not giving it. I felt the fire continuing to burn inside me, that I was going to change my life to do what no one believed I could.
The lung mass was caused by an infection that I caught from taking a trip to Arizona. It is also known as Valley Fever. It baffled the doctors for weeks as it ran through my lungs, bones, and blood. Though the longest two months of my life, I learned a lot about facing the unknown and feeling true fear.
August 2, 2004, my third son Gabriel came into the world. He was premature, and very small; my illness had cost me about 20 pounds. But he was beautiful, and completely everything that a child who had overcome such odds should be. My case was so complex that it was presented at NIH for study, and the presentation was finished off with a healthy picture of Gabe and I together.
By the time Gabriel was about 12 weeks old, I was running regularly. I couldn’t wait to race. I ran my very first 5K in Charlottesville, Virginia in January of 2005. I came in second to last. I ran my first 10K in March, and moved up the rankings. I was beginning to fall in love with running. It was a love affair that would never end.
The last Sunday in October of 2005, with my now 14 month old son Gabriel looking on, I ran the Marine Corp Marathon in just over five hours. It was the most exhilarating accomplishment of my life.
I stood at that finish line and could smell the tubing of the oxygen that had been in my nose the summer before, and could still see the doctor’s face telling me I probably had lung cancer. I cried.
I have since run the Marine Corp Marathon twice more, and run it once pregnant with my fourth child. I have run the Charlottesville Marathon twice, and the half marathon once. I am about fifteen minutes now from qualifying for Boston, which is my goal for this year. I just completed my first triathlon. I am looking to run an ultra in 2011.
Every time I cross the finish line, I never forget what got me there. I never miss an opportunity to tell everyone I meet that every goal you set for yourself is worth chasing after, and that life is too short to waste a moment wondering if you can.
My dance with death was nothing more than a placebo. I am one of the lucky ones. From the hospital bed to the finish line, running has breathed new life into me, and become the life force of my soul. A gruelling journey indeed, but one I would gladly repeat barefoot with a 50 pound sack – just to learn the same lessons that the past 6 years of running have taught me.
I don’t think there is anything special about my story. I am just one of the “regular” folks out there, who tripped over running with all the odds stacked up against her, and pushed them out of the way to run on by.
And I make the promise to myself each time I lace up my sneakers, to take a look at the side of the road, and remember those odds, because truly anything you want to go after, you can… and should.