Getting back to the road race

By Stephanie Sliekers
September 14, 2012

Walking home after winning our championship soccer game, my teammate asked me, with candour only a time-tested friendship can allow, “Are you walking funny?”

I paused to observe myself. At almost a full step behind her, my strides were short and awkward, and I waddled as I struggled to keep up. Sure, my shoes were too big and my pants were too tight, but to be honest, I don’t walk with the same ease as I did before cancer treatment.

Before cancer, I didn’t even consider walking ‘exercise’. As a competitive swimmer, I grew up known for my ability to bench press more than my classmates. I competed in Kids of Steel triathlons, ran in track and field and cross country, played catcher in softball, goalie in soccer and eventually fly-half in rugby. I was awarded Female Athlete of the Year in my last year of High School.

The large, 10x15cm tumour growing in my chest was discovered only because of my desire to be stronger and faster. At the age of 25, my half-marathon training was stalled by some unusual trouble catching my breath. Eager to get on with my training, and mark a huge milestone in my life, I saw my doctor. A routine chest x-ray found the tumour. One short month later, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I put my demanding physical regime on hold during treatment. I sat on the couch instead of going for runs. I ate French fries and cookies instead of vegetables and protein. After six months of aggressive chemotherapy and four weeks of radiation, I was in remission. I had also gained twenty pounds, lost much of my muscle mass, and couldn’t make it up one flight of stairs without gasping for air. My half-marathon training physique had transformed into the tired, weak body of an 80-year-old.

Six months after treatment, I was ready to prove to the world that I bounced back from treatment. I registered for three running races in preparation for the big goal – a 10km race in December. The last time I ran a 10km I sprinted across the finish line, and this time, I planned to do it as a cancer survivor.

Training was hard. Sprint workouts didn’t have the same gusto. My pace had slowed, knees hurt and my breathing was labourious. Three workouts a week got knocked down to two, and sometimes even one. I refused to give up, but most days, my body just fit better on the couch.

The day of the race was a cold, and my joints and muscles whimpered in the frigid air. My sister and I agreed to go against our competitive instincts and stick to the back. It was the hilliest, most challenging course I ever ran. The mile markers were a cruel joke, taunting me with their minutia.

I didn’t sprint across the finish line. In fact, I barely ran it. My body ached and my joints screamed the whole time, but the same voice that got me through treatment shouted louder in my head: “Just over this next hill! Don’t stop now you’re almost there! Think of how good those bacon and eggs will taste!”

 

It’s been close to a year since I ran that race. I’ve lost weight (Weight Watchers) and built muscle (Extreme Fitness program for blood cancer survivors), but getting out for a run isn’t any easier. My teammate was right; I walk, run, bike and swim with difficulty. But, it’s not impossible. Enduring treatment and surviving cancer proved that I can do anything I put my mind to. I may not have run a half-marathon yet, but I’ve already won the most important race of my life.

 

About the author:

Since finishing treatment in March 2011, Stephanie is still in total remission. Her follow-up appointments are uneventful, and usually involve a lot of small talk. She was treated at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, where she lives and works close to her family and friends. Although Stephanie continues to push herself physically, she is adapting her expectations to fit with her “new” normal. To learn more about Stephanie and follow her journey, visit her blog at 100resolutions.com.

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