In June 2015, I wrote an article for Out There Monthly called “Why I Run” about training for my first 50k trail run. The run never happened. I was supposed to be shaking my legs out in nervous excitement alongside a couple hundred other runners at the starting line of the Rattlesnake Ridge Run. Instead, I was lying in a bed on the neuro surgical ward of Sacred Heart Medical Center, recovering from surgery to remove the recurrence of a brain tumor from 15 years earlier.
I should’ve seen it coming. For the month or so before, things had been a little off. While out on the trail, I was tripping. A lot. I would be focusing on the ground saying out loud “lift your feet, lift your feet, lift your feet.” Suddenly, I’d be lying on the ground with fresh blood seeping out of new holes in my right leg and feeling lucky my face wasn’t split open. I was also failing to notice things happening toward the left side of my body, like cars coming at me as I crossed the street. They later told me it was called left-side neglect.
My doctor sent me in for an MRI. However, as soon I got home from the appointment, before any official results were in, I already knew the cancer was back. I found myself in the kitchen breaking dishes out of frustration and anger. The next day, the surgeon confirmed it. The tumor was much smaller this time, but he wanted to operate in two days. Which meant I missed the 50k race by two days.
It was supposed to be a quick six-week recovery. Instead, it turned into a year and a half of infections, emergency surgeries, and delayed chemo treatment. The whole time, running another 50k was the goal that kept me energized and optimistic. In between, there were a lot of false starts, attempts at running followed by a month or two spent in the easy chair binge-watching “Blue Bloods” after a new complication plagued me. By the time I was finally able to start the last two-thirds of my chemo treatments in mid-2016, my body was completely worn out.
The first time I had cancer, in 2001, depression hit after treatment ended. This time, the depression seeped in as the infections and emergency surgeries and delayed chemo treatment seemed to stretch on and on. Death felt very real, as close as a recurring infection or a punctured blood-brain barrier. Over and over, I was told the next procedure was the last step before things would get back to normal. After a while, you stop holding your breath.
I’ve talked to a few people who’ve gone through cancer, and it seems like the first time, you can just get up, dust yourself off and keep going. That was true for me after the 2001 episode. Then in 2007, I had a second quick episode of testicular cancer. Again, it faded quickly. But the intensity and uncertainty of this third round, coupled with the fact that the brain tumor is probably going to return some day, has made cancer a part of my identity in a new and possibly permanent way. It has changed me in ways I’m only starting to recognize, let alone understand.
When the chemo ended in December 2016, I knew things couldn’t just return to normal. I needed a goal to keep me moving forward. The only thing on my radar was to run that 50k. In early January, as soon as my strength returned enough to sustain a few trips to the gym every week, I picked a 50k and started training. It had to be this year, because, well, life is short. Around Spokane, the last 50k of the years is Trail Maniacs’ Riverside State Park 50k in early September. That’s eight months to train for a 31-mile trail run, starting from zero.
The first two times I had cancer, the hard lessons didn’t stick with me. This third time, I come out with a new resolve to connect with the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. Running the trails, reaching this goal and hopefully connecting with others along the way are the next steps to getting there. //
Brad Thiessen is an avid trail runner and cross-country skier. A documentary short film about his return from cancer, called Proof of Life, is scheduled for release in November 2017. Learn more at ProofOfLifeFilm.com.