Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lance Armstrong and me

I'm like Lance Armstrong.

Just kidding.

Since it's April Fool's Day, I thought it was a good time to get that out of my system.
I do have some things in common with him, though. We both ride a bike and we both fought cancer. Sports helped pull us both through. Running, and tennis, are closest to my heart, and it was through running a road race at just about this time five years ago that I learned I had leukemia. My time was about 10 minutes slower than usual in Holyoke's Saint Patrick's 10-K in March 2003, and, thinking I was anemic or just plain run-down, I went to the doctor.

Blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy revealed the shocking news: I had Acute Myelogic Leukemia, a fast-moving blood cancer. The race led me to the discovery while I was otherwise still pretty healthy, and put me in good stead to withstand the rigorous chemotherapy that followed.

Two years later, when I was back on my feet, I was planning to run the same course again. I was back at work as a reporter for a regional daily newspaper, and my managing editor called me into her office. I had just gotten into work, my hair still damp from my morning run. My editor wanted me to write about running the upcoming race, to explain all the feelings it brought up and to talk about how exercise had helped me get through my treatment.

"It's like Lance Armstrong," she said.

I'm not sure, but I might have rolled my eyes.

"The race is a metaphor for life," she said.
She said my story was compelling like Armstrong's, but more accessible. Not everyone can fight cancer and win the Tour de France. It was easy to admire Armstrong, but not to identify with him.

I had written about my road back to fitness in an essay for the Lives page of the New York Times magazine (4/3/05) I wasn't sure I wanted to be all over the front page of our reginal daily newspaper, but my editor thought it would help a lot of people.

So I wrote about how exercise sustained me through my long hospitalizations (one as long as six weeks), as I rode a stationary bike in my room and walked the hospital corridors dragging my IV pole. I wrote that exercise helped me take it one step at a time and distract me from pain and fear of death. I wrote about getting a bone marrow transplant, and about the year I spent recovering at home.

I was glad that I did it. The letters poured in, surprising me with the effect that my story had. Later, I will share some of them. I'll also share thoughts about getting back on your feet after serious illness and setback, through finding something -- in my case, sports -- that helps you get outside of yourself. I welcome comments and shared stories.

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