Wilmington Trust recently ran a blurb about my story in their newsletter. It fills in some missing pieces that some of you might not be aware of so I thought I would share it.
Resourceful Way to Remission
A lifelong athlete runs cancer into the ground
By Robyn Ray, from the July 2009 issue of Wilmington Trust’s JOURNEYS publication.
Three years ago, when Stephen (Steve) Brown, Wilmington, DE received an unexpected and fear-invoking diagnosis – cancer – he did what he does best – he got physical. He ran into the disease head-on and just kept going, until the fear and physical illness were behind him.
“Athletics and fitness has been my ‘thing’ since I was about 9 years old; actually, probably younger, but that’s when I was introduced to organized sports. Over the years, my passion for all things fitness-related has evolved and, while my interests have changed from year to year, my dedication to an active lifestyle has been an extremely important aspect of my life. Pursuing fitness is my therapy; my ‘go to’ place,” explains Steve. For the past 20 years, this passion has taken the form of endurance sports such as marathons, Ironman competitions, and triathlons.
Steve’s childhood and youth were idyllic, filled with great friends and memories. But for the first time, in 2005, “things started to unravel” recalls Steve. After the sudden death of his dad and serious health problems experienced by his still grieving mother, it was with great relief and optimism that Steve and his family turned the calendar page on December 31, 2005 – all needed a fresh start.
Two months into the New Year, Steve saw a doctor about the trouble swallowing he’d been experiencing: “What a nuisance tonsillitis would be, but,” Steve thought, “I’ll have a tonsillectomy, get the procedure out of the way, and move on to triathlon and Ironman racing season. I figured, maybe I’d breathe better and even get a little faster.” Not so fast. Pre-surgery testing revealed that Steve’s white blood cell count was elevated and he was referred to a hematologist/oncologist for more testing. The tests showed that Steve had cancer – chronic lymphocytic leukemia. This Ironman could do nothing but shake his head in disbelief and ask “why me?”
Steve met with doctors and began to create a treatment plan, while thinking, “Treatment shouldn’t be too bad; I see plenty of windows of opportunity to continue working out and training.” But Steve’s doctor had other ideas. “Maybe we should give the triathlon stuff a rest until we get a handle on this thing [cancer],” the doctor said. As Steve recalls, “I glared at him for seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t wait to leave his office so I could go find a new doctor who would allow me to train during treatment.” But Steve took a breath and explained the importance of doing something during treatment – being active was an emotional need, a way to cope. After much negotiation, the never-before-cancer-patient and the doctor-who-had-never-before-treated-a-triathlete met halfway: Steve’s doctor realized the emotional and mental boost that Steve’s physical regimen would provide him as he navigated the rigors of cancer treatment, and Steve realized that he’d have to put Ironman competitions temporarily on hold.
The marathon of chemotherapy treatments began and, on days he felt able, Steve maintained his athletic training schedule; when he was tired, he didn’t push too hard and rested, as he promised the doctor he would. “I tried to make it a habit to run home from my chemotherapy treatments. This wasn’t one of the negotiated terms, but since it wasn’t expressly forbidden by my doctor, I considered it to be allowed,” admits Steve. “And I got a lot of enjoyment from watching the shock on the chemo nurses’ faces when I left a four-hour intravenous (IV) session of chemo with a bandage on my punctured vein and laced up my running shoes to run home. It helped me to feel in control; like I was playing head games with the cancer.”
Steve had one week of IV chemo, then three weeks of recovery – this “cycle” of treatment was repeated for four cycles. It was after being diagnosed and during these cycles of treatment that, as Steve says, “A giant light bulb went off – I knew that I needed to get involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training® program.” The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (Society), the world’s largest voluntary health organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research and providing education and patient services, holds athletic competitions in which sponsored participants raise money for the organization. To help participants successfully complete the physically demanding competitions, which include marathons, half marathons, triathlons, 100-mile bike rides, and hiking adventures, the Society offers a sports training program run by volunteer athletes. Steve signed on with the Society as an assistant triathlon coach – he coached athletes on the weekends and received cancer treatments on Mondays.
Only one month after completing his initial, four cycle treatment, Steve participated in a sprint distance triathlon; two months after the event, he ran an Ironman distance triathlon. “These races had been on my calendar since before I was diagnosed and it was important to me that I use them as goals to work towards during my treatment – keeping these commitments forced me to mentally visualize myself as healthy at the end of my treatments. It was another way of using my passion for fitness as a tool or a weapon against the leukemia.” Steve was in control – he was harnessing the mental determination and physical strength that helped him train for, and compete in, so many grueling athletic competitions, to motivate him through treatment. He was coping, visualizing a positive outcome, and making it happen with his strong will and chemotherapy.
It worked. Today, Steve’s cancer is in remission. As Steve recalls of more difficult days in the past, “Staying as fit as I could through the treatment process allowed me to remain mentally and emotionally, ‘on course.’ I retained the aspect of my life which was normal while navigating an environment that was foreign to me.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that Steve outran cancer!