Running through cancer

Well, spring has sprung and the marathon season has begun.

For some of us, it means an end to a particularly long winter of running in the snow and cold in hopes of putting in a pretty decent effort over some 42.2-kilometre course. For others it means overcoming some pretty incredible obstacles.

Last weekend, one of the regulars with my Sunday morning running group said her training hadn't been going particularly well — and she was thinking of dropping out of the Boston Marathon, coming up on Apr. 21.

"I made the mistake of asking Derm for his advice," she said. "Now I gotta run it."

Derm Holwell takes his running pretty seriously. The 53-year-old Mississauga, Ont., resident has run 17 Derm Holwell
consecutive Bostons — most of them in under three hours.

Last fall, he went to see a doctor after he unexpectedly dropped a little weight.

"He suggested I get a bunch of blood tests and then he asked me if I ever had my PSA tested. I told him I didn’t even know what PSA is."

Prostate-specific antigen. A simple test measures the level of the stuff in your bloodstream. If it's above a certain point, you'd have to undergo more tests to determine whether you have prostate cancer. The test is recommended for men over the age of 50.

Holwell put it off for a few weeks, but eventually had the test.

"The next day [my doctor] called and explained what the tests are indicating. You always hear people say 'their legs went weak.' I never really had that feeling before but I’ll never forget it."

According to figures from the Canadian Cancer Society, prostate cancer hits as many men as breast cancer hits women.

A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis and Holwell went under the knife on January 28, 2008 — less than three months before the Boston Marathon.

The post-surgical reports were encouraging and Holwell did not need radiation treatment.

"Very early on I got in my head that I could run/walk [Boston] within the six-hour time limit allowed — just to keep my 17 year streak alive."

The oncologist begged to differ.

"The specialist said I wouldn’t feel like running for six months. When I asked him if that meant I wouldn’t feel like it or I couldn't, he told me not to run for four to six weeks."

The specialist eventually gave his blessing to Holwell's plan to run Boston after he agreed to give up the idea if anything felt off either during training or the marathon. Within five weeks, he started running again. At first, very slowly and not very far.

By the time he decided that he could get through Boston and still be standing at the end of it, the marathon had sold out.

At his daughter's urging, he signed up to run for one of the charity teams that are guaranteed entry into the marathon. None of the affiliated charities raises money for prostate cancer research. Instead, Holwell is raising money for research into ovarian cancer — the leading cause of death of all reproductive cancers.

Running the Boston Marathon, 12 weeks after undergoing prostate cancer surgery. Amazing what the human body is capable of.


Derm Holwell completed his 18th consecutive Boston Marathon on Apr. 21, 2008, in a time of 3:25:55 - 12 weeks after undergoing prostate cancer surgery. He raised more than $14,000 for ovarian cancer research.