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Outrunning Cancer: What This Marathon Has Taught Me So Far

Today was my 18th radiation treatment session for stage three rectal cancer. I have 10 treatments left. Tomorrow I start counting down in the single digits. Provided I don’t have to take a break for severe crack burns or other side effects, my last treatment should take place on Friday, June 1.

While the prospect of an end to this treatment cycle is exciting, I realize this is only the first stage (relay leg, if you will) of a cancer marathon. Leg two will be surgery this summer to remove whatever remains of the tumor. The last leg is much tougher round of chemo to make sure there are no traces of cancer in my system.

I’ve compared my cancer journey to a marathon almost since the moment I was diagnosed at the end of March. It was easy to do. I’ve run or walked four marathons since April 2010, and number of half marathons. I love endurance events, and I’m especially grateful for the experiences of walking or running races as fund-raisers for the American Cancer Society DetermiNation program.

My last race, the Covenant Health Knoxville Half Marathon, was April 1. Today, I can barely walk a mile. I know, because I did it at lunch today. BC (before cancer) I worked out at least five days a week, usually going 6 or more miles on the elliptical. Now, as a result of the fatigue caused by the radiation, I don’t feel like doing anything after work. I know this will pass, eventually, but being couch-bound most nights and some full days is torture for an exercise junkie.

Those who read my blog regularly know “exercise junkie” is a relatively new term for me. It wasn’t all that long ago, just two years or so, in fact, that I was 100 pounds heavier than I am today. Exercise and proper nutrition helped me lost the weight. So, this newly imposed inactivity has given me some measure of fear that I’m going to gain back the weight. I am happy to report that my weight has remained the same since my first visit to the radiation oncologist. No weight gain. Good times.

I’ve been a “cancer patient” for almost two months now, and I’ve already learned a lot:

  • Always, always listen to your body. I believe it’s because I had lost weight and was eating healthfully that I knew something was wrong with me. I had digestive issues for about three months before I saw a doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist, who diagnosed the rectal cancer. Likewise, I am listening now to the fatigue. I could harm myself or my treatment by pushing myself harder than my body is willing to go. Treatment is hard, my body is tired. Resting is okay.
  • God gives you the strength you need when you need it. I’ve learned this on marathon courses. Running and walking the Country Music Marathon in 80-degree heat was brutal, but God got me to the end despite calf cramps and depleted electrolytes. As a cancer patient, I know radiation treatment is necessary to shrink the tumor, but climbing onto a table to get radiated knowing my rectum and my crack are, literally, getting burned and will hurt, is something I know only God is helping me do.
  • Anger profits me nothing. The lovely Sarah has asked me a couple of times if I’m angry that I have cancer, because it would be understandable if I were angry. I’m not. God hasn’t cursed me with cancer, although I believe He has something to teach me in this process. I’m not a super Christian, God knows believe me, blowing smoke about rising above my circumstances. I don’t ask “why me?” perhaps because I work for the American Cancer Society and I “know too much.” Did you know one of every three people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime? Statistically, why not me?
  • Love will find you. “You didn’t have to get cancer to find out that people love you,” my friend and co-worker Megan joked the other day. I have been humbled by the love and support showered upon Sarah and me, and rendered speechless several times in the process. I have a growing collection of cowbells and other awesome cow-related items (cows are known to wear cowbells, which make my favorite sound when I’m running a distance race). In addition, it seems everyone wants to do “something,” and we appreciate it. When the surgery and follow-up chemo come, I promise you we will be calling for help. God, and his people, are pretty amazing.
  • A sense of humor will take you far. For example, I sent this text to a group of friends we call our Unfamily this afternoon: “Flaming Buttholes is a great name for a band.” I’m happy to say, they took the humor even farther. “What genre would that be?” “Ba-donk-a-donk or ass-id Rock.” “Heard of them,” another friend said. “They had the one-hit wonder, ‘Burning Uranus.'”
  • This is not the end of me. One of the toughest conversations after I was diagnosed was with my little sister, who was in tears when we spoke. She needed reassurance that I was not going to die. “This is not going to kill me,” I said. “The next year will suck, but my prognosis is excellent.” And it’s true. My prognosis is excellent, and there will be a beautiful life on the other side.
  • Planning for life AC (after cancer) begins now. Yes, life will be beautiful on the other side of cancer. I plan to write a book about my experience — from the decision to get healthy at age 40 to marathon training to cancer diagnosis, treatment and victory. I will run the Rock ‘n Roll Savannah Half Marathon in November 2013 as a DetermiNation athlete once again. I will have a wonderful life with my sweetie and caregiver, the equally unstoppable and lovely Sarah.

The end? Heck no! This is only the beginning…

Living with Cancer Means Applying Everything I’ve Learned About Health and Wellness

I’ve been living with the knowledge that I have cancer for about six weeks now, and it turns out a lot of what I’ve learned to lose weight is also what I need to know to fight cancer.

Check it out:

  • Exercise is extremely helpful: Mentally, emotionally and physically, exercise is a good thing. The stronger I am physically, the better off I will be as chemotherapy and radiation therapy do their thing. Exercise also helps keep me sane and wards off negative feelings about the fact that I’m in this fight to begin with. Positive is always better. I walk, or jump on the elliptical at the gym. I even took a Zumba class last week.
  • Protein, protein, protein: Clean proteins are always a better choice than processed foods. I’ve been making breakfast smoothies with almond milk, Greek yogurt, protein powder and frozen fruit like strawberries, blueberries or cherries. They’re simple to make and delicious. Additionally, we eat lots of turkey and chicken.
  • Less is more when it comes to sugar: I struggle with this one every day. I would like to not eat sugar, but I dig sweets and I want to eat sweets of all kinds. Still, I’ve read that sugar feeds cancer. It also causes inflammation, which can lead to cancer and other illnesses. I’m working on this.
  • Vegetables and fruits are awesome: Vegetables, and lots of them, are a good thing, especially those with cancer-fighting properties, like tomatoes. We also cook a lot of broccoli and spinach. I also eat some fruit, especially bananas, but vegetables over fruit is always the better choice.
  • Listening to my body is important: Paying attention to my body’s signals is how it was discovered I have cancer, and it’s even more important. Am I experiencing any side effects, like mouth sores, blisters on my hands and feet, taste bud changes, gastrointestinal issues? It’s important to track that information. It’s also important to know when I need to rest. After the aforementioned Zumba class, I didn’t do any kind of workout for two days. I was exhausted!
  • Losing weight is off the table: Using what I know about living healthy cannot be about losing weight for the time being. Seriously. The dietician at my cancer treatment center was asking if I had experienced loss of appetite since starting chemotherapy. I said, I had not and it was unfortunate because I have another 20 or so pounds I’d like to lose, which was met with a stony silence. The medical team will evidently freak out if my weight drops by as much as five percent. Actually, I was met by the dietician after radiation therapy when it appeared I’d lost a whole pound. They’re serious about this no weight loss thing. It’s cool, I get it.

Living with cancer sucks. I wish I didn’t have to do it at all, but here I am fighting stage three rectal cancer. My prognosis is great, though, and I’ll have a long life after cancer treatment is over. And, guess what? Everything I know about healthy living also applies to life as a cancer survivor.

Here’s to survival!

An Update on My Colonoscopy Post

It occurred to me today that my blog has been dark for nearly a month.

That last post I wrote about undergoing a colonoscopy around the time of my birthday may have been a little too tongue-in-cheek. I was diagnosed with rectal cancer. Dr. Chobanian, my gastroenterologist, was shocked. He said he was fully prepared to tell me I had colitis or Celiac Disease. Cancer didn’t event enter his thought process. He also noted the irony that I work for the American Cancer Society and I was diagnosed with rectal cancer during colorectal cancer awareness month.

Still, even tough I have stage three rectal cancer, my surgeon is confident we can “get it out, hook you back together and cure you.” Following the shock of diagnosis, his words, as well as the news that a PET scan shows the cancer has not spread, was music to our ears.

Weird this is I don’t feel sick. I ran the Covenant Health Knoxville Half Marathon five days after my diagnosis, and the Run for the Schools 5K the week after that. I’m still going to the gym regularly, or walking outdoors in an effort to take at least 10,000 steps every day. In some ways, it’s been life as normal. Yet it hasn’t been normal at all.

The lovely Sarah and I spent a nearly sleepless first week in a strange place where we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Since then I’ve undergone an endscopic ultrasound, a PET scan and a flexible sigmoidoscopy. My colon has never been so clean! We’ve met with our surgeon, radiation oncologist, and medical oncologist. Now, we have a sound plan and I’m ready to get treatment underway.

My prognosis really is good. I’m also blessed to be relatively young (43 is a bit young to be diagnosed with rectal cancer and speaks to a genetic anomaly, which means my immediate family should and will get tested for cancer) and in good health. The 100-plus pounds I’ve lost, the focus on healthy eating and exercise — much of which I’ve chronicled in this blog — have set me up for victory.

We look at it as God’s plan. The marathons and half marathons I’ve run over the last few years have been preparation for the treatment marathon ahead. The next 9 to 12 months are going to be a challenge. I’m going to have surgery where the sun doesn’t shine. And my body is going to be filled to overflowing with toxins and radiation to fight my enemy, cancer.

However, we know this is a race I’m going to win!

I will keep this blog updated as best I can. If you’re interested in staying updated on my treatment, visit my page on Caring Bridge at www.caringbridge.org/visit/michaelholtz.

Peace!

It’s My Birthday Week, So Bottom’s Up! (And I’m Not Talking About Beverages Here)

At the American Cancer Society, we observe March as Colon Cancer Awareness Month and we work to educate the public and lawmakers about the important of early detection and prevention of colon cancer through recommended screening tests like the colonoscopy.

I turn 43 on Thursday, and I’ll be celebrating early by meeting with a gastroenterologist for a consult on a colonoscopy. Bottom’s up!

I’m not getting a colonoscopy because of any cancer concerns, although it is certainly possible polyps could be found during the procedure. Rather, I will undergo a colonoscopy to help determine whether I have a gluten/wheat intolerance.

My story begins in January, on the Saturday I ran a frigid 11 miles in Cades Cove. I ran with a couple new to our long distance training group, and as we ran our cold 11 miles, they talked about a book they had been reading called Wheat Belly. In the book, cardiologist William Davis talks about the perils of the wheat we eat today because it has been genetically modified to the point of being unrecognizable when compared to the wheat our ancestors ate. As a result of modifications to make wheat a hardier, fast-growing, plentiful grain, the end product has become an addictive substance with a higher glycemic index than sugar.

Davis traces the result of the current obesity epidemic to the USDA’s recommendations in the 1980s to eat plentiful whole grains. In addition, Davis posits that wheat, and our body’s response to it, could be responsible for a number of health ailments, from acne to cancer to diabetes and more. Davis writes that prescribing his patients go completely wheat free has resulted in better health and significant weight loss.

I was interested in reading the book in part because last fall I began having intestinal difficulties: the need to go urgently and nothing resulting, or the need to go urgently with explosive results. Additionally, some bathroom results included blood and/or mucus. Something was wrong, and I knew it.

So, I picked up the book and decided to experiment with giving up wheat, which I did for two weeks. My symptoms eased up and things returned to a more normal state. Then, on Valentine’s Day, the lovely Sarah and I shared bread and cupcakes as part of our dinner. For the next two days I was miserable with the return of my symptoms.

Ironically, I made this connection at a time I needed to be bulking up on carbs to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon as an American Cancer Society DetermiNation athlete. How was I going to do this without pasta, bagels and other high-carb foods? Thank goodness for rice, potatoes, tortilla chips and the like.

Since the marathon, I’ve continued to live as close to wheat-free as possible, although wheat is in all kinds of products that look nothing like cupcakes or bagels. One of my favorite candies, Red Vines, is made with wheat flour. Wheat can also be found in seasoning packets for tacos, chili and the like. Wheat is in some lip balms. Wheat is also in some processed luncheon meats.

Wheat is everywhere, and for me it may be the devil! Davis writes in his book that later-life allergies to wheat and/or gluten are becoming more common.

Wednesday I meet with a gastroenterologist. Sarkis Chobanian, M.D., at Gastrointestinal Associates. He’s truly one of the best. While I don’t know him personally, I have heard him tell the story of performing a colonoscopy on President Reagan. It seems the president didn’t want to be put under anesthesia for the procedure because that would mean transferring power to the vice president. Instead, Reagan white-knuckled the scope while completely conscious.

So there it is. I’m not worried about “getting scoped.” I don’t fear it at all. And, I don’t fear the “Go Lightly” or whatever it is they give you to clean the pipes before the main event.

Knowing is always better than not knowing.

Race Recap: Catch the Leprechaun 5K in Oak Ridge

The 2012 edition of the Catch the Leprechaun 5K in Oak Ridge actually fell on St. Patrick’s Day this year, and it was a great event. The race was also a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society.

Race Director Chris Keever told the crowd they began the race last year after their family was touched by cancer. He also expressed to my, and colleague Kayla Shelby, that he hadn’t gotten a lot of cooperation from the City of Oak Ridge in planning the event. Consequently, the course was changed just two weeks before the race.

I ran this race last year, and I liked the 2012 course better. Much of last year’s race was run on the Oak Ridge Turnpike. This year, the course centered on the neighborhoods around Jackson Square. It was lovely, and a number of neighbors came out to cheer on the roughly 400 or so runners and walkers in the race.

In addition to the race, the event featured a nearly day-long concert of Irish music. Additionally, Razzleberry’s, one of the restaurants on the square, offered beer and an Irish-themed dinner for an extra charge over the race entry fee. By the looks of it, the beer and dinner area was a smashing success.

For me, it was a great race. I hit the first mile in under 10 minutes (roughly 9:37 by my watch), which was about the fastest mile I’ve ever run. By mile 2, I’d slowed a bit to my normal pace of about 11-minute miles. My final time was 32:52.6, with an average pace of 10:36 per mile. I was thrilled with that result. Equally thrilled that I placed 14th in my age group (40-49) out of 27 runners. I’m usually much closer to the bottom of my particular pack.

I also had the pleasure of seeing lots of friends at the race, which always makes a race that much more fun. I’m looking forward to the 2013 version of this race!

Marathon Recap: The DetermiNation to Finish in New Orleans

My experience as an American Cancer Society DetermiNation athlete in New Orleans was nothing short of amazing.

Okay, the lovely Sarah and I experienced a bit of a travel hiccup trying to leave Knoxville. In brief, we ended up flying out on Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon as intended because of a mechanical issue with our plane to Atlanta and a bunch of oversold flights to New Orleans. We got to town just in time to enjoy the DetermiNation athlete brunch, where my teammate Becky Polite and I were recognized for being top fund-raisers.

This is the top fund-raiser bib I wore on the back of my singlet along with the Honor and Memory flags of the wonderful people for whom I was running this year.

So far, I’ve raised $2,855. I would love to get to an even $3,000, so if anyone is interested in helping me get there, just click here.

After the brunch, the lovely one and I walked a few short blocks from our hotel to the marathon expo, which was held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

In front of the epic DetermiNation display at the marathon expo. I look tired, and I'm not even at the starting line!

After the expo, Sarah and I enjoyed  a carb-loading dinner at Coop’s Place, with our friend Tracie. Then, it was back to the hotel to get my feet off the ground and dream of race day.

We were up early for the all-team walk to the start line. Had a great time chatting with a number of my colleagues, who were also athletes or supporters. Then, it was race time! The weather was perfect: mid 50s to lower 70s by the time I crossed the finish line. The course was flat which, for a guy who has no choice but to train on the hills of East Tennessee, was a joy. And the support along the course was wonderful.

I was slow, but I knew I would be. It didn’t help that an urgent need to use the port-o-let at mile 10 threw me off my rhythm. And, my calves started cramping around mile 16 (note to self, compression socks next race). However, in addition to the names I was carrying on my back, which definitely kept me moving, I had four words rolling through my head: Do Not Give Up.

And I didn’t. I walked more of the race than I intended, but my calves were unrelenting despite downing salt tablets and more electrolytes than I had before. Still, my finish time of 6:21:11 was about 15 minutes faster than my last marathon. So, PR for me — woo hoo!!

After crossing the finish line and changing clothes, here's me with my race bling.

The bling!

Best piece of DetermiNation swag ever!

It was a great race and I can’t wait for my next DetermiNation race. Now to decide which one that will be: Savannah? Seattle? Chicago? Philly? There are so many great choices. If you’re interested in joining me and other DetermiNators from across the country, click here for information on all DetermiNation races.

 

 

Time to Build the Honor/Memory List for My Marathon

I wanted to keep it short and simple this year, my list of people for whom I’m running in honor or memory on race day. With just 10 days to go before Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans and my third DetermiNation effort, I’m not certain short and simple is going to be possible.

As ever, cancer is all around us and it seems I learn at least once a week if not more often of someone I know whose life has been broken into two pieces: BC and AC (before cancer and after cancer). At the American Cancer Society we talk often about cancer being no respecter of persons. Cancer doesn’t care about your income, political affiliation, religious preference, sexual identity, gender, etc. One in every three people is going to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

We have to change the odds. You can help do that by supporting my marathon run. DetermiNation is the endurance event fund-raising program for the American Cancer Society. I work for the Society, I raise money for the Society because I long for the day when our children and grandchildren will be able to ask the question, “What was cancer?” If you would like to help reach that day, I’d appreciate a donation. Just click on my personal fund-raising page to get started.

On March 4, I will be running in honor or memory of:

  • Nancy, a dear friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer just before Christmas.
  • John, a colleague and friend whose cancer recurred last summer.
  • Jeffrey, a friend who is a 20-year brain cancer survivor who has had a recurrence
  • Emily, the mother of a colleague who was recently diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer
  • Michael, father of one of my DetermiNation teammates who lost his battle with cancer while we were running DetermiNation 2011
  • Bonnie, whom I’ve known almost since the day I moved to Knoxville and who has fought leukemia and lymphoma for much of her life
  • Marilyn, an amazing woman, strong volunteer and cancer advocate whose fight ended in December
  • Uncle Bob, who died of pancreatic cancer 20 years ago this summer

This list is bound to grow, but it begins here. May it be the beginning of cancer’s end as well.

 

Finding Humility in Being Someone Else’s Inspiration

I got a delightful surprise yesterday.

WBIR-TV, our local NBC affiliate, aired a story on Live at Five at Four about Randy Carr, who has been a volunteer for the American Cancer Society, where I work. Randy is a member of the Covenant Health Biggest Winner Knoxville Marathon Team, which brings people from across the community together to get healthier while training for the marathon.

I was privileged to be a member of the team in 2008 and 2010. In the story about Randy, he recalls seeing me on the show in 2008 and says I inspired him to begin his journey toward fitness. I am touched and humbled. I’m just a guy who decided I needed to turn my life around or I was going to die prematurely – like my father.

I am immensely proud of Randy, and the inspiration he is to his son. I’m also proud of my friends Amanda and Lee Ann who are also on this year’s team. They’ve all made incredible progress toward their goals!

Check out Randy’s story here.

18 Days to the Big Dance, and the Coolest Valentine’s Day Gift Ever!

My wife, the lovely Sarah, has impeccable taste when it comes to giving gifts.

For Valentine’s Day, she gave me something I’ve had my eye on for a while — a customized race medal hanger from the fine folks at Allied Medal Displays.

Best thing about it, it’s a DetermiNation medal hanger. Check it out:

I can’t wait to get it up on the wall and start filling it up with my growing collection of race medals.

Sarah also gave me a gift certificate to Frank’s Barbershop, one of my absolutele favorite places in all of Knoxville. I gave her a couple of books she wanted, and we had a spectacular dinner at Le Parigo, a French bistro located downtown. Needless to say, we did not count the calories in our delicious three-course dinner, or the Gigi’s Cupcakes we had when we got home. The food hangover this morning was totally worth it, though.

Speaking of DetermiNation, today marks 18 days until the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon. Now that the shadow of the valley of a 22-mile-long training run has passed and I’m heading toward the taper, I’m feeling great about race day and looking forward to the jazz brunch, visiting the marathon expo with my teammates and wolfing down some beignets as part of my carb-loading. We will be in New Orleans after all!

Remember, I am running for a cause — the American Cancer Society. I would appreciate any help to get me closer to my fund-raising goal. Donations of any size can be made by visiting my personal fund-raising page.

 

25 Days and Counting to the New Orleans Marathon. Time to Finish Strong!

My 2012 DetermiNation race — the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon — is 25 days away.

I wish it were tomorrow.

To be honest, I wish that partly because I’m tired. Marathon training seems harder this time out, for some reason. Or is taking longer, even though this year’s race is nearly two months sooner than the race I trained for last year. Even fund-raising seems harder this year — and I’ve never been concerned about the fund-raising side before.

I’m doing everything right on both fronts. I’m training with my long-distance running group on Saturdays, getting in three or four good runs during the week, doing a little cross training (Zumba, spinning, weight training) once or twice a week, and taking a knock-out yoga for endurance athletes class on Wednesday nights. Let me tell you, the Pigeon Pose alone makes me love that class every week.  On the fund-raising side, I’m fund-raising with Facebook, sending messages to everyone I know or have chatted with on some form of social media in the last six months. I’ve done e-mails and a paper letter to friends and family.

I’m doing all the right things. It’s all just harder this year. I don’t really have an answer for why.

Let me state for the record, however, that the challenges of this year haven’t dulled my enthusiasm or commitment to DetermiNation. This is the first time I’ve really put words to what I’ve been feeling this time out. And, wouldn’t you know it, I was once again starkly reminded why I love this program so and why I put my body and spirit through this process every year.

It was a phone call from my friend Jeffrey.

I love talking to Jeffrey. He’s a great guy — husband, father, motivational speaker, and 20-year brain cancer survivor who was diagnosed with a recurrence in 2009.

He was calling with a professional question, but Jeffrey also said he and his wife are taking a long weekend trip to New York City. He was excited and I could hear the smile in his voice. Then came the dark undercurrent: Scans have revealed a fifth tumor in his brain. The cancer is growing. He’ll be taking a break from chemo, which I swear he’s been on forever, in a couple of weeks.

“We need to get together,” he said.

Indeed we do. And we agreed to celebrate in a few weeks, after I’ve crossed the finish line and he’s started his chemo “vacation.”

In the meantime, I’ve got the rest of my training to do.

By the way, if you’re at all inclined to support me with a donation to the American Cancer Society, click here.

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