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Barbi Appelquist

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Running With Scars

Posted: 07/02/2013 2:58 pm

On Friday, June 28, I received official notice that I will be running the Nike Women's Half Marathon in San Francisco on October 30. I am a runner and a two-time cancer survivor.

One year ago today, I laced up my first pair of proper running shoes even though I had a hard time standing up straight. My skin, abdominal muscles, and underlying tissues were healing from my April 16 surgery to remove malignant cancer: a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. For three weeks in the hospital, minus the three or so days at home when I couldn't keep water down, I was in a bed trying to sleep and not think about food, taking my "meal time" to walk around the sixth floor of the UCLA Ronald Reagan West Wing with my trusty IV dolly. The downside of walking after a major abdominal surgery that leaves you with 10 inches of staples running from above your belly button down past your bikini line is that you don't realize you are walking funny; you are just happy to be walking. I didn't realize that my entire body had healed in a concave, hunched over position until the day before I was discharged. I tried to sit up straight in bed. Bad idea. Every instinct told me to STOP. I cried to my husband. How would I be able to play with our 4.5-year-old daughter if I couldn't even sit up straight in bed? He encouraged me to take it easy and allow time for my body to heal.

After those three weeks at the hospital, I was allowed to go home, to my bed, to my kitchen, to my family. I was home with strict rules to stay on a liquid diet (Ensure and my new immersion blender became my new best friends). The 20 or so surgical staples were replaced by surgical tape. The 10-inch incision from my belly button down to my pelvis was healing, and so were all of the underlying tissues. I still couldn't sit up straight, and walking without my dolly was complicated, to say the least. Luckily, an amazing mom from my daughter's preschool is a physical therapist. My husband told her about my biggest anxiety: How would I be able to care for my 4.5-year-old daughter? Her conversation with my husband turned on a light -- ask for a referral from my primary care physician to see a physical therapist. That was the single best support I received.

I had never been to a physical therapist before. I thought only athletes or amputees go see a physical therapist. I didn't understand how cancer surgery warranted physical therapy. My grandparents, on both sides, were salt-of-the-earth farmers. During those childhood summers I spent with my mom's parents on their farm in the Ozarks, I got up with the sun, tended to the cattle, then dealt with the rest of the day helping my grandmother around the farm. But, what I discovered during those 30-minute sessions with my physical therapist made me what I am today, one year later. Those sessions turned me into a runner.

When my physical therapist at that first appointment asked me what I did to relieve stress, I said "yoga." When I was pregnant in 2007, working full-time with a 45- to 55-minute commute each way, I lived for that half hour early in the morning when I could click play on TiVo and breathe, stretch, breathe. Namaste. I enjoyed the meditation, but I really lived in the stretching, the core work, planks, downward dog, the pigeon, etc. I have very fond memories of being a junior in high school trying out yoga for the first time with a friend, a fellow honors student. We were at our local gym that gave a reduced membership rate for high school students on the honor roll. Even though I giggled my way in 1992 through that first yoga class, I kept going back. As a consultant in Tampa, Florida and New York City, as a law student in San Francisco, and as a mom in Santa Monica, I kept working my way through yoga. Unfortunately, the problem with abdominal surgery is that ANY core work is basically outlawed. Pilates. Yoga. Crunches. NADA. Unless you want a hernia and maybe another operation. No thanks.

So, my physical therapist looked at me with compassion and said, "Anything else?" I made some flippant comment about how I used to go jogging in college around Riverside Park in New York City, when I also happened to smoke two packs a day. "You could run." Huh? Run. No, I wasn't a runner. I didn't actually "run." I could shuffle my feet faster than a walk for a block or so. And that was before abdominal cancer, before these 10 inches of scar tissue and surgery and nasal-gastric tubes. And, I had exercise-induced asthma.

"Maybe that was the anemia, from the cancer? Or the smoking?" Maybe he had a point.

After that conversation, I was curious. During the one year from diagnosis to surgery, I read almost every cancer survivor book I could get my hands on. Almost every book, from David Servan-Schreiber's Anticancer: A New Way of Life to Greg Anderson's Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do, emphasized the importance of exercise. My go-to of yoga was nixed. And if this physical therapist, who was helping me to stand up straight without crying, said I should start running, maybe he was on to something.

A few more sessions passed, twice a week until my insurance-approved maximum number of sessions ran out.

"I am going to do it. I am going to try to run."

"Great! Start slow. Walk a few blocks, then run one block. Walk a few, then run one. Before you know it, you'll be running a mile."

I took his advice. One year ago today I became a runner. I started with one block at a time. Within the past 365 days, I have run five official 5Ks and one 10K. I even placed in the top five for my age group! On Sept. 1, I will complete the Disneyland Half-Marathon with my little sister and on October 20, I will run the San Francisco Nike Women's Half-Marathon. I am not the fastest or the most stylish. I am not the most athletic or the most photogenic. But I am alive and running with scars.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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