By Lance Abernethy
Arlington, Virginia, April 10, 2012: “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you have cancer.” Those are words you never want to hear. Those few words change your life forever. The first time you hear them, the impact is numbing. So many thoughts rush into your head, yet your mind is totally blank.
On February 11, 2009, I heard those words. The tests were complete; the waiting was over; and it was now time for the news. Convincing my doctor to conduct the initial testing was a challenge. She objected because I had no family history of prostate cancer; I was young enough to not be at risk (I was just turning 50); I was relatively fit, and I completed several long-distance runs and bike rides each year. It wasn’t a textbook case of someone that would be diagnosed with prostate cancer. Despite all of this, and based on the initial testing numbers, I was pretty sure I had cancer. But hearing the word, cancer, out loud was a different story — it confirmed that I wasn’t truly ready to confront the diagnosis.
I spent that afternoon and evening walking around in a daze. I told a few friends the news in a completely wrong manner. I would call them; tell them the tests were positive and then tell them I was fine and move on to the next task. I didn’t realize at the time that I was adversely impacting my friends with the news as much as the diagnosis had adversely impacted me. They were not mentally prepared for it. I, however, thought I was prepared. It never occurred to me how to deliver the news to others. I didn’t realize that when you are diagnosed with cancer, those that you share the information with are diagnosed as well. Every person you share this information with feels the impact of your diagnosis — each to a varying degree, but it impacts their lives as well. They are concerned, confused and they care. But more importantly, each person wants to know what they can do for you. In my case, in the end, the strength of the support network they provided me gave me courage and strength during the times I needed it most.
Once the results confirmed that I had cancer, deciding the treatment protocol was the next big step. I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Brassell and the resources of the Center for Prostate Disease Research at Walter Reed Army Medical facility. The center focuses on prostate disease and the care and treatment of people diagnosed with a prostate disease. After my initial consultation with my doctor, the treatment protocol was determined, and the date-range for surgery was narrowed down … all that was left was waiting.
I needed to set a goal to motivate myself to succeed in treatment and push myself for a full and fast recovery. I was accustomed to a full running and riding “event” routine. I would run the Cherry Blossom Ten miler in April, Tom’s Run 200 mile relay run the first weekend in June, the Army Ten-Miler at the beginning of October, the Marine Corps Marathon at the end of October, the JFK 50 Miler in November and maybe another event in January. I would complete several century rides (100 mile rides) throughout the year, either as an organized event or as a training event for my runs. I consulted with my doctor about the likelihood I would be able to participate in these events after the surgery in April. He was very straightforward and brutally honest. He said that it was impossible to tell if I would be fully recovered in time for any of the events, but he was certain that I wouldn’t be competitive in any of them. Well, that was easy … I have never been “competitive” in any of those events. For me, it is about completing them, not winning them. I know that I am not fast. But to have a goal of successfully completing a race—and achieving it—that was what I considered success. Each event has always been difficult, but it kept me alive, fit and focused.
So, based on his advice, I decided that April 9 would be my surgery date. This allowed me to complete the Cherry Blossom ten-miler the weekend before surgery, spend time with my friends after the event, and then get things in order for the surgery and recovery process. The Cherry Blossom was a wonderful event. I was surrounded by several friends for the entire run. We all had a magnificent spring day and celebrated life afterwards. The positive energy was amazing. My smiles were genuine and fulfilling.
I decided to register for my standard fall events with the hope that I could complete them, but to be realistic, I had to choose an event after the first of the year to be my “goal” event. Completing it would represent my victory over cancer. So, what could be a better goal than racing in an event that is almost as outrageous as I am – the Goofy Challenge? The event is held the first weekend of January at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Florida in January! There is no downside to this idea. The Goofy Challenge consists of the Donald Duck half-marathon on Saturday and the Mickey Mouse full marathon on Sunday. I decided to register for the Goofy Challenge. This may sound a little daunting for someone that will be eight months post-cancer surgery. But for me, it is a goal that would motivate and drive me to persist in my training and recovery. I mentioned this event to several close friends, and before long, we had a crew of people from different areas registering and making arrangements to run with me in support. Many of these friends are adventurous souls in their own right, stellar athletes and teammates from other events. But in the end, they wanted to do this as a show of support for me.
My first post-surgery walk was less than 100 yards. It was miserable and exhausting, and caused me to wonder if I would be even remotely ready for a race in January. And I was still registered for all of my original fall events.
With money already spent on registration and the events on the horizon, I managed to build up my strength and train harder. “Slow and steady, slow and steady,” was the mantra I repeated in my head as the weekly mileage built up, and the strength began to return. Several of my friends, some committed to the Goofy Challenge with me, showed up for support at each of the fall event.
As the first weekend of October arrives with the Army Ten-Miler completely sold out — and this being my first race after surgery six months prior — I am totally nervous. Over 30,000 runners passed through the streets of Washington D.C. on a warm Sunday morning. One of my running mentors, Machine Mike gave me some last minute advice, “Bank the tank. Go out steady at a sub-nine minute pace, and save some energy for the finish.” At some point during the last two miles, I realized that I had a chance at a personal record (PR). So, I pushed myself to the finish. As I crossed the finish line, I raised my arms in victory. For me, finishing a run only six months after surgery when my doctor thought I might not be able to do it, was incredible. But finishing a run six months after surgery and blowing my four previous Army Ten-Miler finish times out of the water was inexplicable. A PR of 80 minutes! I was exhausted, but so happy. All I could say was, “Take that cancer; you can’t beat me.” It was wonderful celebrating with my friends, and this was just the beginning. The Marine Corps Marathon was only three weeks away. When October 25 arrives, I was feeling good but still worried that I hadn’t had the time to fully recover before running 26.2 miles. Once again, determination and the support of my friends helped me complete another event, again with a PR. This remains my fastest marathon at 4:04.
Things were progressing, and my recovery was coming along. I continued challenging myself. The JFK 50 Mile ultra-marathon was only three weeks away, and I had two PRs in the month of October. Was there a chance I could pull off a trifecta? The JFK is always the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This event is not an easily completed task on the best of days for a weekend warrior like me, but for a guy that is just over six months out from surgery, good luck. This time though, a good PR wasn’t in the making. The run took me over 12 hours and was my worst 50-mile run. But I finished. There were several times on the course where I thought I would never finish. In the end, it was the encouragement of the people that had been there for me on the days prior to Cancer supporting me and making me laugh at the pain, which encouraged me to finish the run. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking, love and support … and a stubborn mind.
With the fall events behind me and feeling pretty good about them, I set my sights on the Goofy Challenge. It had to be memorable. It had to be different. It had to be successful on a totally different level. I researched and found the maker of the Blue Man Group’s makeup. I had the idea that Dan, my best friend, and I would run the marathon dressed as the Blue Man Group. He loved the idea, as did I. The weekend’s weather ended up being the coldest weather in years for Orlando. It snowed and sleeted at the start of the half-marathon on Saturday and was almost as cold on Sunday. It took almost two hours to get “dressed in costume” on Sunday morning for the marathon. However, we were a huge hit at the start and throughout the course. We went through the entire 26.2 miles stopping and taking pictures with Disney characters and spectators — I now know what a rock star feels like on stage. As we came into the finish area, the entire crowd in the bleacher area stood, clapped, shouted and stomped their feet to cheer us on, the Blue Man Group, to the finish line. They didn’t know the story behind Dan and I, why we were there or why we were dressed up. They just knew we looked like the Blue Man Group and we had just ran 26.2 miles. In the end, it was great to be anonymous and enjoy the moment. To relish in the goal that I had just accomplished.
This was supposed to be the goal that I had set to motivate me to beat cancer, but I wasn’t convinced that cancer had gotten the message. So, over the course of the next three months, I completed the Cherry Blossom Ten-Miler (again), a half-marathon, the Shamrock marathon and the Bull Run Fifty-Miler (for the first and last time ever) by the one year anniversary date of my cancer surgery.
When I went to see my doctor after my one year anniversary, I was so excited to tell him that I had completed two ten-milers, two half-marathons, three full marathons and two fifty-milers in the year following my cancer surgery. As a runner himself, he was happy that I felt healthy and had been motivated enough to complete the events. My tests showed that the cancer had not returned, and I was on my way to living my life as normal as I can live it.
I discovered several things during this process — things I thought I already knew, but this experience reemphasized them to me. First and foremost, the people that love you the most will be there for you in ways you can never imagine. They will rally around you, lift you up and give you what you need—even when you don’t know what to ask for or how to ask for it. Secondly, the battle with cancer is almost as much of a mental battle as it is a physical battle. The mind is a powerful tool that can work for you or against you. In the end, you have to believe in yourself and the caregivers more than the disease believes it can win. Also, no matter the trials in your life or the obstacles placed in your path, if you set your mind to something you can do almost anything. The determination and the dedication of my doctors, my friends, and me proved that I could complete each race. I could be successful at whatever I attempted. It wasn’t about winning the race; it was about showing up at the starting line … and the finish line!
If you are a male over 35 or have someone special in your life, encourage them to be tested for prostate cancer. The statistics for prostate cancer mirror those for breast cancer for women. Take care of yourself. If not for you, then do it for those that love you.
Lance Abernathy is participating as a member of Team Coast Guard 1790 in the 2012 Face of America ride from World T.E.A.M. Sports.