Thursday, June 23, 2011

Outrunning cancer

Running and cancer are symbiotic in a way that’s captured almost perfectly in the phenomena of running events organized to raise money for cancer research. Who among us has not yet donated to someone willing to break a sweat for the cause? Cancer charities last year grossed an impressive $650 million from their various 5Ks, 10Ks, walk-a-thons, marathons, and other events. Running has become lifeblood to cancer research, trailing only the federal government as a funding source.

I’m happy for this voluntary response, which assuages my guilt over not directing funds that I’ve raised to the cancer research behemoth. When I ran the Portland Marathon in 2009, I raised more than $10,000 for Acorn Foundation, the community nonprofit that Ellen and I operate in Corvallis. I considered aligning with the Melanoma Research Foundation, but I have doubts about the efficacy of cancer research in general, about which I’ve previously written. I believe in giving money generously but also strategically, and the return on investment in cancer research is meager by almost any standard. There are more worthy ventures in the world for which I know my dollars will make a tangible difference.

Yet the fact remains: There’s nothing like a good marathon fundraiser to move the emotions and to open the checkbooks of donors. Runner’s World magazine published a special issue this month on “Outrunning Cancer,” in which it examines the powerful link between running and cancer. According to a survey conducted by RW, 17% of runners either have cancer now or have had it in the past. Given that there are about 36 million runners in the U.S. (give or take a million), that’s quite a constituency. The current running boom, which includes the recent addition of both of my 20-something children, is related in part to the plethora of races that raise awareness for cancer research. There are thousands of runners out there today who would likely still be parked on the couch if not for the Race for the Cure (breast), Miles for Melanoma (skin), Team in Training (leukemia and lymphoma) and other cancer nonprofits that put on well organized and supported events. I don’t know about its impact on cancer, but all this running around has got to be making a positive difference in the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases.

Like many cancer survivors, I run both because it helps me cope with the aftermath of my cancer treatments and because it strengthens me for whatever lies ahead. I am driven by the need to outrun the thing that’s trying to kill me. That’s why I expect to log more than 1000 miles this year, as I have for all but one of the five years since I was diagnosed. Running and cancer work together in ways ranging from the financial to the psychological, from the biochemical to the existential. You don’t die suddenly from cancer, as you might from a heart attack, and you don’t survive it overnight either. Training for a marathon unfolds over months and the race itself takes hours to complete. This passage of time allows a narrative to take shape. When the story of cancer meets a runner’s story, the combination can sometimes knock your socks off.

This comingled story has played out in the life of Deena Kastor, one of the great American marathoners (bronze medalist at the 2004 Olympics) and a melanoma survivor. Kastor, who is 38, has had several cancerous moles removed, as well as basal cell carcinomas. A guy with a very different cancer pedigree is Michael Moyles, a Facebook friend who was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer in 1999 and who has since run eight marathons. Moyles, who is also 38 and an Air Force officer, has raised more than $100,000 for cancer research. His determination and grit is supernatural, and I’ve looked to him for inspiration when the chips have been down for me. I believe in the power of the personal stories we have to share with one another.

Possibly the best qualities of runner-survivors are their appreciation for life and fearless attitudes. Running can teach you ways of managing whatever comes your way, including the traveling of great distances on your own two feet. That’s an important lesson, and if others are inspired enough by it to donate to the cancer research cause, then that’s all good. There are certainly worse things we can do with our money. The running-cancer partnership plays out in many strange ways, as I continue to discover for myself.

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