Slow and Steady: Why I Started Running in the Middle of My Battle With Cancer

"Running allowed me to believe in my strength."

I was 11 years old when I learned to ride a bicycle. 20 when my elbows touched my knees in my first successful sit-up. 30 when I learned to swim. Then, in my 40s, I faced a real physical challenge: Cancer.

Until I turned 42, I took physical challenges one slow step at a time. In first-grade gym class, Sister Rosemary pressed down on my feet; “In the name of God, you can do it,” she urged, her black habit bunched up on one side. I scrunched, twisted, grimaced and grunted, but I couldn’t raise my upper torso high enough to complete the task at hand: a sit-up. I was 20 before I could do a sit-up, by which time crunches were all the rage. Praise be to God, Sister Rosemary might say.

I learned to ride a bicycle in fifth grade. Trailing behind the little kids, their handlebar ribbons streaming, I padded behind, Flintstone-style in my banana seat bike. In my exercise regimen, I got the biggest workouts in humility and perseverance.

Swimming? I was 30 when my swim teacher had me blowing bubbles at the shallow end of the pool. I “ate wake” as I dodged the flipping lap-swimmers and learned to swim. Slowly.

It wasn’t that I was a couch potato. I’d never been one to sit around. It’s just that, in my early childhood we lived in a part of the city most safely experienced indoors. Moreover, my parents were Cuban refugees and, in Cuba, it would seem, you could just open the door to a baseball game or a dip in the beach. They were unaccustomed to a new way of life in which parents managed their children’s athletic skills. “YMCA? What the carajo is that — ¿Algo comunista?” they’d say.

I came to see myself as entirely unathletic. Active, I would call myself, for later in life I would walk miles in my hometown city of Philadelphia. Daily. But athletic? Doesn’t the word imply velocity of some kind? Didn’t I need a trophy? A plastic medal at least? Then, at 42, I was an early pick. For cancer. The first time anything having to do with my body took off running.

With Hodgkins lymphoma, I was suddenly thrust into a completely new world of doctors’ offices, scans and tests, hospitals. Even though my lymphoma was in a hurry, my life slowed down. Waiting at doctors’ offices, hospital scan rooms, surgery prep. Getting pricked, needled, strapped, bandaged. Waiting for diagnosis, second opinions, advice, treatment. Waiting for the chemo to drip. Holding my breath as I hoped to survive.

For a few weeks, I was dazed by my diagnosis and disoriented by my bewildering new life. As I waited for all the medical experts to help me, somehow I confused the patient’s chair with sitting in the passenger’s seat of my own life.

One day, feeling sorry for myself, I went for a walk around my South Philly neighborhood. I found myself in Columbus Square Park, a city block devoted to recreational use. There were people chatting, coffee cups in hand, at the dog park. Kids laughing and screaming in the playground. A soccer game took up the larger part of a field. On auto-pilot, I walked around the park. At first I begrudged everyone their normalcy. The hipster mom encouraging her blond toddler down the baby slide. Would I ever again be so free and unconcerned with my three-year-old son? The multi-pierced couples walking hand in hand. Would my husband still find me attractive? The elderly sitting on the bench. How fortunate they were to have lived to their age. Would I get that chance? I kept walking around the park. Maybe endorphins kicked in but I realized that no one was looking at me as if I were different. No one took a double-take at my baseball-capped baldness. No one had stopped me to ask if I needed assistance. I was walking. A lot. I had lost count of how many laps. I remembered something I had recently heard by Jon Kabat-Zinn, ” … as long as you’re breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what’s wrong with you.” I finally understood his meaning.

The next morning I returned to that park early. Maybe I was hoping for that endorphin rush. Or maybe I just wanted normalcy. I felt so determined that I ran. It kind of just happened. Which is not to say that I had never run before. I had. But I’d get so winded after one block that the effort would dissolve into a spirited, if customary, walk. The old reliable.

But on this particular morning, the stakes felt higher. Like Apollo-Creed-looms-ahead higher. Did I mention this was a South Philly park? Sure, I was winded after one block. Nice that I could keep pace with the elderly Italian man walking his dog. A Dachshund. Still, a block is a block. I had achieved my max. I’d lost nothing. I walked by two elderly women making the slow arm movements of Tai Chi in the garden area of the park. I noticed the sun over the trees. I walked three blocks and ran the shady side again. Made it! I didn’t care, as I had previously, that it might be ridiculous to run all of one block and walk three to recover. I suddenly had purpose. If I could keep it up, it would mean that I had my strength. If I could possibly improve upon my run-to-walk ratio, it would mean I was doing better than surviving. I was thriving.

Alongside treatment, the running continued. Every other day. Strength training on alternate days, but I couldn’t wait to get to the park to test myself. How was my body doing? Was I still okay? Could I do better? Turns out I could. Slowly.

Running became a litmus test for my well-being. I can’t speak for everyone, but it was the right thing for me. I found that by taking on a new challenge, particularly a new physical challenge, I had given myself a new image. Instead of a passive patient strapped to an IV, I was . . . athletic? Well, I was more athletic than I had ever been. And it mattered. It really mattered. Not my speed. Or lack thereof. What mattered was this evidence that showed there was more going right with my body than wrong.

Running allowed me to believe in my strength.

I felt back in charge of my health. I incorporated foods with high antioxidant properties into my diet, supplemented with protein powder and L-glutamine; arranged reduced hours from work so that I could be better rested for my son; and took a more active approach with my treatment. I even negotiated a lower degree of radiation with my radiation oncologist, with his blessing.

It’s been five years since my treatment. I still run. In fact, over these years, I slowly built up my endurance. It took about three years for me to build up the stamina to run a complete mile. Yes: three years. You can smile, it’s okay. Over another year for two miles. Last year, I completed my first 5K.

All around me, friends who’ve been athletic all their lives are bemoaning their lost abilities: they can’t run as fast as they used to or last as long. “Tennis elbow!” “Oh, my aching back!” they say. My husband is becoming interested in golf, because “It’s a strategic sport.” Having never been athletic, I’ve lost nothing in comparison. The beauty of all this is that, now at 47, I am more athletic than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’ve never felt younger. Or stronger.


An emerging writer of Cuban-American descent, Adriana Lecuona is a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Goucher College. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Middle Gray Magazine, Dark Matter Journal and The Acentos Review. Currently, she lives in Wallingford with her husband and son. When their family runs around the area trails, Ms. Lecuona lags behind, her pace slow but steady.

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