Cancer Survivor – Part One of Twelve: Fifteen Year Anniversary – July 31, 2011

The Hoan Bridge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.
Image via Wikipedia

My name is Rick Czaplewski and I am a 15-year cancer survivor of Hodgkin Lymphoma. I was diagnosed my freshman year in college at age 19. After a successful fight, I relapsed two years later. I fought again, won, and have lived 15 years cancer free since the time my doctor said, “Congratulations, you are now in remission.”

July 31st remains a special day for me, a day I refer to as The Anniversary. A lot has happened since July 31, 1996. Cancer has evolved and the approach to diagnosis, treatment, and post care has changed. For me, I have gained perspective on the disease and its time in my body. In honor of my 15 years of good health, I want to offer my insights and experiences to shed light on a cancer survivor’s point of view. With the help of Infortainmentnews.com, I am going to write a 12-part blog on cancer survivorship. My topics will include my own experiences, viewpoints of the cancer community, Lance Armstrong, and many others. For the first post, I want to discuss my 15th anniversary celebration, the topic of this entry. Here goes!

When my doctor told me my cancer was in remission and there was no evidence of disease (NED) in my body, it marked the end of a three year cancer fight including seven months of chemotherapy, 48 radiation treatments, and innumerable pokes and prods. On July 31, 1996, I took the good news from my oncologist with the same emotion as if he told me, “Congratulations, your furnace is now working.” But, soon, I was celebrating one year of survival, then three, five, ten, and so on.

Each passing year eroded the bitterness and erased the fatigue of the fight leaving only, well me, and my desire to mark the occasion by simply living. My first true anniversary celebration came four years after remission marked by my furious climbing of Mt. Rainier. Each year since, I have marked the day by climbing mountains, running marathons, or swimming vast distances. Cancer took fitness from me, so The Anniversary is my defiant balance of the scale by completing endurance events to prove that cancer cannot permanently take my fitness.

It’s basically a big F U to cancer!!

In years past, I completed events alone or in groups with strangers. But, this year, I broke tradition and invited my sister, Amy, and friends, Dave and Kayla, to complete the Rock ‘n Sole half marathon in Milwaukee, WI with me.

This is the first anniversary I ‘celebrated’ with anyone I knew. As a bonus, it would mark Amy’s first half marathon and I wanted to see her finish.

Training took me to Auburn, California home of the American River Confluence and some of the best running canyons around. These trails form part of the Western States 100 race and gave me the heat and hills to imitate the course conditions.

When I walked out the door on race day, I knew the weather would punish my body. Despite my preparations, the heat and 60% humidity likely would present a sweatbox-like challenge I had not faced in training. I picked up Amy, and felt the heat through the car window as we drove to downtown Milwaukee.

The DJ-voiced announcer counted down the seconds and soon we ran onto the course. The race covered some interesting landmarks in Milwaukee. First, the run traversed the Hoan Bridge along Milwaukee’s lakefront. After six miles, runners alighted on Lincoln Memorial Drive through Lake Park and back along the shore of Lake Michigan with a fun finish inside of Summerfest. Beer and a band awaited finishers with a blowout party promised to all.

The race began uphill onto an onramp over the Hoan Bridge, a freeway closed to pedestrians and cyclists. As we ran into the heat, the view of Lake Michigan pushed further into the horizon. Runners ran shoulder-to-shoulder adjusting to the conditions and their accelerating heart rates. After the first mile, Amy turned around and motioned to the first water station as if to ask, “Should I bother?” I enthusiastically pointed towards it knowing we’d need ample water throughout the day.

The race crested the bridge and turned around at the three-mile point. The third water stop seemed like a bad joke. Empty plastic cups and water jugs littered the ground around an empty table. No water, only a guy with a rake cleaning the street surrounded by several screaming runners yelling, “Where’s the water?” Empty. As a veteran of many races, I always carry hydration just in case something like this would happen. Amy did the same; Dave, not so lucky.

We left the mob and the raker and continued uphill to the Northbound side of the Hoan. The sun rose higher and the temperatures climbed. Our party of three disbanded with Amy setting a hard pace out front and Dave slowly pulling away from me. I could see the haze over the Milwaukee skyline as I urged my body harder to catch Dave. As I did I told him, “I’m gonna walk the rest of the hill and leave some in the bag for the end.” He replied, “Alright I’ll catch up with you on the other side.”

I watched him bob through the crowd as I shifted into walk. After cresting the bridge and running down the back side, I noticed I could have abandoned the race at the 6-mile mark to finish the race as a 10K. But, against common sense, I continued onto the half marathon course.

Mile six marked the first, stocked water stop since mile two. I had drained my bottle and was dying for some hydration. Unfortunately, the station had run out of cups. So, I grabbed one from the street, poured some water and downed it like a desert prisoner. By now, the field collectively scaled back its efforts to walk-run with varying increments for each.

For the first time in the race, my thoughts returned to cancer. Living 15 years cancer free after a rugged fight through chemotherapy and radiation felt like a blessing and a blur. I thought of those moments sitting in my parents living room with my stomach tied up in a straight jacket from chemo. And those first years relearning my body and the symptoms it gave me when things were not right. I felt better, not just celebrating 15 years, but surviving the race. Something about surviving the run and celebrating at the end felt appropriate for The Anniversary, so when a runner cruising by with a contraband jug of water from the last aid station dumped some over my head, I felt even better and ready to sustain my effort.

But conditions continued to deteriorate. At mile 10, a volunteer stopped me so three ambulances could cross the course, carrying dehydrated runners to the ER and at mile 11, another with a bullhorn waved a black flag telling runners to stop running and that the event was closed.

Closed? After more than two hours, some guy was telling me the run was black flagged and the roads were closed? I glared at the bullhorn. It woke me up. Instead of sustaining my heart rate and run/walking just to finish, I began to pick it up.

Cancer had denied me three years of my life; no one would deny me completing the race on my own power. I set my iPod to a mix of disco, Celtic punk, and heavy metal and began to run again towards the finish. I rang the mantra, “No one tells me to stop,” in my head repeatedly as I passed exhausted runners. My heart rate rocketed to 175, far beyond anything I hit in training, and yet a smile crossed my face. I would finish and I would do it my way in deference to the heat, conditions, and insistence to stop.

The song ‘Shipping up to Boston’ by Dropkick Murphys hit my ear buds. I rocketed past the S/V Dennis Sullivan, a pirate-looking ship with three masts docked in Lake Michigan, to the pirate-themed song passing dozens of runners. Finally, back!

The anticlimactic finish line looked like a M*A*S*H scene with another bullhorn guy yelling instructions to returning athletes and several runners strewn along the sidewalk, exhausted. The exhilarating finish lasted seconds as a dark haze washed over my vision reducing my periphery to the tunnel in front of me. Someone thrust a plastic bag of ice into my hands and another gave me a medal as a thank you for not dying during the event.

My swagger was replaced by a wobbly-knee walk to a tree where I met up with speedy Amy, Dave, and Kayla. I quickly sat down on the cement, under a tree, felling like I was going to pass out. I used the ice to cool down for the next hour, until my heart rate finally dropped below 135.

We didn’t talk about cancer or reflect on the last 15 years. We laughed about the course and cursed the race director who under-planned water and basic provisions. Most of all, we felt happy about surviving the race without a hospital visit and perhaps that’s the best way to mark The Anniversary, celebrating, laughing, and surviving all over again.

See you next month.

[image via Flickr]

Rick Czaplewski
One of life's greatest adventurers.

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  1. @jameshicks @RickyChapps Nice read. Thanks for sharing & looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

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