Cancer Survivor and Ultra-Marathon Runner
Colleen Johnson was 57 years old when she was diagnosed with a rare but aggressive form of endometrial cancer. Her tumor weighed in at 2 pounds, was deeply invasive, and was about the size of a cantaloupe. Her cancer was so locally advanced and aggressive that she was given only given a 20% chance of surviving 5 years.
Many (though certainly not all) adult onset cancers are influenced by obesity. There was reason to believe Colleen’s might be one of them. At her peak, Colleen was 242 pounds. Colleen readily admits “I was obese.”
Clinical trials done with both breast and colon cancer patients have established the fact that many who experience an adult-onset cancer can improve their chance of survival by losing weight if they need to, changing to a healthy diet, and engaging in regular, vigorous exercise.
Colleen didn’t have either breast or colon cancer, but there was reason to believe this might work for her kind of cancer too. So Colleen decided to do just that. She got with an oncological nutritionist, who gave her a 1500 calorie diet to follow. Colleen was at high risk for her cancer to return, therefore, her oncologist did not want her losing weight too quickly. A 1500 calorie diet would allow Colleen to lose weight slowly but steadily – only 1 to 1 and 1/2 pounds a week. Her doctor felt that was a safe pace to lose the weight. Also, her oncologist does not want her going under 140 pounds, because even today, she runs the risk of her cancer coming back, and if it ever does, her doctor says she will need some reserve fat to survive.
As for regular, vigorous exercise, Colleen began with just a walking program. She would walk some today, and then walk a little bit more tomorrow. She walked 6 days a week and preplanned her walks so that she would increase her walking distance by about 10% every week. This allowed her to grow stronger at a slow, but steady clip.
Eventually, she began to mix some running into that mix. She ran just a little bit at first. In the beginning, she could not even run 1/8th of a single mile (one loop on the indoor track at her gym). But she kept working at increasing the amount of distance that she could run, until one day, she could do it. This was the day she decided that — if she could slowly build her way up to running 1/8th of a mile, she could slowly build her way up to run/walking a full marathon!
By adding just a little bit more running or walking distance every day, she kept increasing her abilities and did so without the soreness, hurting or even injury that can come from trying to do too much at one time.
Seven months after her cancer treatments ended, she had built herself up enough to do her first 5K ever: the Teal for a Cure 5K for ovarian cancer awareness, in September of 2013. She crossed the Finish Line in 35:52.
Less than 5 months later, in February of 2014, Colleen ran/walked her first FULL MARATHON – the Shelby Forest Loop Marathon. She backed that up by run/walking the Little Rock Marathon the very next weekend. In June of 2014, she did her first ultra-marathon, Run Under the Stars (RUTS), a 10-hour endurance race in Paducah, KY. She successfully completed 32 miles in the race that year. She was 58 years old.
Colleen is now 62 years young and has been doing road races for four years. As of late October 2017, she has successfully completed 10 full marathons, 30 half marathons, and 9 ultra-marathons.
Among her ultra-marathons were the 60 miles she did in the Tour d’Esprit in east Memphis in 2015, and two 100 milers she successfully completed at A Race for the Ages in Manchester, TN (2016 and again in 2017).
Her 100 miler in 2017 was particularly challenging, as the first 12 hours of her race were run in the torrential rains of Hurricane Harvey (by then “only” a tropical storm) as it slowly passed through middle Tennessee. There were places on the course that had standing water as high as 8 inches, and she was forced to wade through these parts of the course as she racked up her miles that first night. The rains eventually stopped and the course dried up, but Colleen was left with huge blisters on the bottom of her feet. These blisters made completing the rest of her 100 miles all the more difficult.
More important than the races she has done, however, is the very fact that she is still alive — and healthier now than she has been in decades! (How many times do you hear a 60-something year old say that – and mean it?)
Before the cancer, she had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. But after losing about 100 pounds and becoming a run/walker, she has managed to get her blood pressure back down to normal levels (her doctor has taken her off all blood pressure meds), and her blood sugar levels (using the a1C test, which measures average blood sugar over a 3 month period) also routinely test out at normal levels.
Most important of all, Colleen celebrated 5 years CANCER FREE in the autumn of 2017. She is grateful for that and just grateful to still be alive!