Cancer as a Marathon

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Chris LaVallee will soon run a 7 day, 155 mile race in the Australian wilderness to raise funds for the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.

I recently heard him describe the race and his training and then answer questions from an audience of supporters. One asked, “How do you keep going mentally when your body is exhausted?”

As Chris began to answer, I realized that distance running is a perfect metaphor for cancer treatment.

Anyone who has had cancer can tell you that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

At the starting line, everyone is pumped up because of the cheering crowd and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

The challenge is when the starting line is far behind and the finish line isn’t yet in sight. Physical and mental fatigue can be overwhelming.

Distance runners expect this fatigue and train for it. Their coaches prepare them to “run through it.”

People with cancer rarely have the opportunity to train before beginning treatment. And they’re likely to be more concerned about losing their hair, throwing up, and dying than about fatigue.

But they’re surprised to find that fatigue is often the most disruptive side effect of treatment. There’s the physical fatigue that sometimes makes getting out of bed a challenge. And then there’s the mental fatigue. If the first four cycles of chemotherapy knocked you on your butt, you know the fifth cycle won’t be any easier.

Just as runners appreciate those who cheer them on far into the race, people with cancer especially appreciate their supporters who cheer them on far into treatment. There’s always a crowd at the starting line and the finish line. We most remember the solitary cheerleader who gives us a lift when we most need it.

Many people with early cancer receive chemotherapy and/or radiation for a set period of time to reduce the risk of a recurrence. There’s a clear finish line.

But people with more advanced cancers often receive chemotherapy on an on-going basis to keep their cancers under control. This is like being a distance runner on a long race without a clear finish line. They just keep running. I really admire their, well, athleticism.

Let’s all give a cheer to Chris as heads off to run that 155 mile race in Australia. And let’s cheer as well for our family members, friends, and neighbors as they face the challenges of cancer with strength and perseverance.

.From the Ithaca Journal, March 27, 2010.

Click here to see all of Bob’s columns


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