How getting off the couch can give you a leg up on beating your cancer.
Conventional wisdom for those going through cancer treatment has always been to rest up and preserve your energy. But now research is showing that exercise may not only help prevent cancer but can also benefit those who already have it—and Don and Jen are living proof. Read on for their inspiring stories.
“I made my body strong so I could endure the toughest treatments.”
While pregnant with her second child in 2007, Jen McManus noticed a birthmark on her thigh had changed. Her doctor biopsied it, and it came back clean. “I didn’t have a family history of skin cancer, so I didn’t think about it again,” says the now 31-year-old from Austin.
Until, that is, she began training for her second triathlon in 2011. She’d completed her first triathlon the year before and was so pumped by the experience she decided to do another. Five days before the triathlon, Jen returned to the dermatologist for acne issues.
The doctor noticed the birthmark and had it retested. A few days after completing her second triathlon, Jen was diagnosed with Stage III melanoma cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes. “My husband, Adam, and I decided to fight,” she says. “I wanted my kids [now 7, 5 and 3] to know that their mom fought as hard as she could.”
Jen underwent three surgeries and then began a year of high dose interferon, a drug that stimulates the immune system and lowers the risk of melanoma recurrence. Doctors told her this plan, which involved taking interferon every other day, was so hard that most patients quit within a few months. Yet Jen fell back on her fitness habits to strengthen her resolve. “I treated it like a fitness goal,” she says. “I knew I would just have to push through.”
Doctors also warned that she’d never be able to continue her normal workout regimen, but Jen didn’t listen. “The stronger I could make my body, the more I could fight off the cancer,” she says.
Going to the gym “wasn’t always pretty,” Jen says, adding that she was often battling a low-grade fever and had to rest frequently. Yet fitness gave her something the drugs couldn’t—energy, and a release from the mental demons that plagued her. “When you hear the word cancer, you automatically think death,” she says. “When I was in the gym, I could forget about what was going on in my head and focus on moving and breathing, which made me feel alive.”
To celebrate the end of her treatment, Jen, Adam and her brother, Mark, completed a 100-mile bike ride through the Livestrong Challenge in October. “It was hard because my leg hurt, but it was so worth it—just to know that I could achieve another victory,” she says.
Today, Jen’s tests show no evidence of cancer, and she’s already training for another triathlon. “By staying as active as possible, I feel like I can put up a better fight. Having cancer doesn’t mean I have to lie down and take it.”
“I’m running marathons—and helping others with every step!”
After running his first marathon at the age of 62, Don Wright wasn’t surprised when his back hurt after the race. But his concern grew when, instead of getting better, the pain became worse. After getting checked out by his family doctor, Don was floored when he referred him to an oncologist.
“That’s when I knew things were serious,” says Don, who lives in St. Paul, MN. Just weeks after running his first marathon, Don learned he had multiple myeloma.
The median survival rate for his type of cancer is five years, but Don resolved to be above average. He also resolved to keep running. In fact, Don decided that he needed to dream big, and gave himself a goal to live for: run a marathon in all 50 states.
Because multiple myeloma frequently weakens bones, running increases the risk of bone fractures in some patients and is not often recommended. But in Don’s case, doctors told him the running appeared to be helping strengthen his bones, and was keeping him healthier all around.
“Running is my meditation,” he says. “With every step forward, I see myself kicking cancer down the street, then stepping on it.”
In December 2012—just shy of 10 years after being diagnosed with cancer—he accomplished his goal by crossing the finish line of the Honolulu Marathon. “It was an incredible feeling,” he says. Even though he completed his goal, Don isn’t done running.
He’s already finished other marathons since December and is using running as a way to raise money for people with cancer via his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ERACECANCER. For every “like” he receives, he donates to Team Continuum, a nonprofit that pays for nonmedical essentials (like rent) for cancer patients, and the Tackle Cancer Foundation, which provides financial support to families with children who have cancer and adults with multiple myeloma.
As of press time, Don’s Facebook “likes” have generated between $5,000 and $7,000. “I’m proud of what I’ve been able to contribute,” says Don. “Especially when I hear from Team Continuum that my running and the awareness it’s created has contributed significantly to the nearly $1 million they raised last year. Now every step isn’t just helping me defeat my own cancer, but other people’s as well. What better purpose can you have than that?”