Running it through. What are you not willing to give up?

The following story was written as a predecessor to the Team Tumor story. Despite 20 or so attempts to get it published it had been relegated to the hard drive… Until now.

Huntsman Cancer Center, Salt Lake City, Utah. Louis C Arevalo

June 2009: Excruciating pain radiated from her hip with every stride.  She had just finished her second of three legs of the Wasatch Back Relay Race from Logan to Park City, Utah and decided now she had had enough. She would not finish the relay. The realization that she was letting down her fellow teammates, a group of cancer survivors and supporters that had formed Team Tumor to raise money for the Huntsman Cancer Foundation replaced the pain from her hip. Not only would the team be let down, she would be disappointed with herself, Suzanne Harsha-Arevalo.

Autumn 2007 Lansing, Michigan: Fighting what she thought was a persistent flu, Suzanne put off going to see a doctor for over three months while she studied and finished finals during her first semester of law school.   When she did make it to a doctor they discovered instead of being influenza it was a cancerous tumor large enough to completely block her colon.  An emergency surgery to remove the tumor and collect several lymph nods proved her condition was not good.  The cancer had metastasized.  She had more inoperable tumors on her liver and there was seeding in her abdomen.  Life expectancy with chemotherapy was eighteen to twenty-four months.

At the age of 36, young for a victim of colon cancer, Suzanne’s life had crumbled.  She was faced with her own mortality and struggled for the meaning of it.  How did it happen?  Why did it happen?  What could she do about it?  She had been near death from the blocked colon and now with no treatment she would be dead within months.  Was it better to live a sick and tired life for a year and a half while being whittled slowly to death by Chemotherapy, or go quickly without struggle, feeling healthy for a month or two before the cancer broke her down?

Suzanne knew the answer even before she asked.  She would not go without a fight.

Having lived the majority of her life in Utah she returned to the state in February 2008 to be near family and friends and under go treatment at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.  Her cancer, being stage IV and having metastasized, meant that Suzanne would be on chemotherapy the remainder of her life.

Suzanne and Henry running near their Cache Valley home. Louis C Arevalo

Outside of being a law school student Suzanne had been a runner, not a competitive athlete, but one who enjoyed the meditative quality that running afforded.  She had participated in several organized events and enjoyed the community it provided.  With her first infusions of chemotherapy, coupled with a bleak outlook, Suzanne let go of the lifestyle she had enjoyed before cancer. Soon running became something that she had done in the past.

“It was simply not something you did when you had cancer and were receiving chemotherapy,” she recalled.    “Why try to take care of yourself when the experts have told you that you will be dead soon?  What’s the point?”

As the months progressed Suzanne experienced the usual side effects of Chemo.  Hair loss, constipation, mouth sores, diarrhea, fatigue, vomiting, loss of appetite, et cetera.  And as if that were not enough, she rode the ups and downs of complete-blood-cell-count and infections that, on occasion, had her postpone treatments and stay over night at hospitals.

Suzanne undergoing chemo at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Louis C Arevalo

One September morning in 2008, Suzanne felt more depressed than usual as she watched runners participating in The Top of Utah Marathon pass near her Logan home.

“To see all the healthy people running by was extremely depressing.”  Her low continued until two unexpected things happened.  First, she learned that her friend and fellow colon cancer survivor, Dov Siporin, had run that very marathon.  Second, was that she received her first clear scan.  “No visible cancer” was in her body.

“We have cancer and are on chemo.  We are supposed to be sickly and lethargic.  We are not supposed to be running marathons.”  Suzanne remembers thinking.  Gradually she came to the realization that she wasn’t dying as quickly as she had been told and if Dov, who was also receiving chemo, could run a marathon then maybe she could run, “just a little.”

Even with this epiphany Suzanne was slow in her return to running until one day in February, while receiving an infusion of chemo at the Huntsman Institute, Dov approached her about joining a team of cancer survivors who would participate in a race. That race turned out to be the Ragnar Wasatch Back Relay Race, a 188-mile course from Logan to Park City.

An IV of fluids between chemo "cocktails" at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Louis C Arevalo

The idea was to show other cancer survivors that you can take back some of your life from this disease, prove to themselves that they could still be active and help raise money and awareness for the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.  “Team Tumor” was to be formed by pulling together cancer patients, survivors, family and friends.

Suzanne jumped at the opportunity and used the race as a goal to take back one joy in life that she thought was lost.

“It’s hard to get started again after being so sick and tired, but once I took that first step, even if it was to just go around the block once or twice, I was motivated to continue.”

Suzanne began running again and discovered something profound.  When she ran she felt like other runners.  Not as strong as she had once been before chemo, but she felt the same challenge. She had that same internal dialog. The one every runner has about trying to prove to himself or herself that indeed they can go farther, that they can dig deeper and that they are capable.

February 2009: Suzanne was reunited with a love.  Her runs were a gift, an escape from the disease that ruled most of the waking moments of her life.

“I feel normal when I run.”

So determined to get back into shape she strained a hip flexor by the middle of April.  Despite the injury she resolved to participate with Team Tumor.

June arrived; the team had grown to fourteen members and had raised $3200. All that they had left to do was run in the Wasatch Back Relay while wearing custom shirts which read “Fuck Cancer…  I’m going running.”

During the second day of the race Suzanne told Dov she wasn’t going to run her final leg. It would be a nagging injury she had sustained in the months leading up to the event that would cause her to quit the race, not the bi-weekly rounds of Chemotherapy she had been receiving.

After talking to Dov, she thought about Team Tumor, her team. They all had their own stories and challenges.  Then she thought about the Huntsman Cancer Institute and how without it she and thousands of others would not be alive.  And finally, she reflected on the roller coaster ride her life had been in the last eighteen months.

On that day in June 2009, Suzanne Harsha-Arevalo changed her mind.  She would do what she always did in life and exactly what she had done when they first gave her their prognosis.  She would fight to the finish.

Louis C Arevalo

36 hours was the finishing time for Team Tumor and theirs was not the slowest.  In total Suzanne hobbled/ran thirteen miles in the race letting down no one and impressing herself the most.

“It was cold and windy when we finished, but I felt proud. I felt that I had achieved something big.  I realized that I could get back some of the things that I love despite being on chemo.”

“Chemo affects everyone differently and it depends on what type, how much and how often you receive it, but I hope that maybe we can show other patients that you can have your life back.  You don’t have to go run a marathon, but you can do a little.  Just taking that first step is huge.  The more I go the more energy I have and even more motivation to continue trying to get out.”

On June 18 2010 Team Tumor will once again participate in the Wasatch Back Relay.  This is a list of members as of April 2010.

Cancer Survivor/Patient                                      Family/Friend

Heather Beagley                                                Paul Fulton                                                        Nancy Heidman                                                NiCole Batten                                                                Dov Siporin                                                     Sally Skuster                                                     Sherri Nielsen                                                   Bill Skuster                                                            Anna Marie Forest                                           Matt Bartley                                                       Suzanne Harsha-Arevalo                               Cathryn Smith

Jaimee Al-Kinani

For more information about Team Tumor and The Huntsman Cancer Foundation or to donate check out the following web address.

http://www.huntsmancancerfoundation.org/netcommunity/teamtumor

Suzanne and Henry outside their River Heights home. Louis C Arevalo

 

note: after three years of chemo and with no visible cancer in her body Suzanne has ceased her treatments under her doctors advice. She is currently training to participate in the Top of Utah Marathon at the end of August.