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Running through cancer

Comments (9)
By Peter Hadzipetros

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.

Update

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.

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Comments (9)

Meredith

My mother is undergoing chemotherapy treatments for ovarian cancer right now. Your story about Derm is amazing. I am a distance runner and looking to run for ovarian cancer. I am just going to do it like you did. Thank you for your help and financial support you raised through your running. Not only are you a great runner (18 Bostons!!!), but a great person.

Posted February 9, 2009 09:32 AM

Joyanna

Alaska

Does anyone know of a "post-cancer camp" that supports running and other exercise, good diet and nutrition? I am 1 year out of post colon cancer treatment and need a focused several weeks to a month to get myself back on the right track. Not too interested in support group type activities, just the knowledge that others understand. Oh yeah, and some place warm. Thanks.

Posted December 15, 2008 08:17 PM

John

Derm, Best of luck on Monday! I'll be willing you on from afar.

I've also been diagnosed with PC and will be undergoing surgery 5 weeks from today. I'd been planning to do my 20th marathon in Dublin next October, but I've put off that one and am now hoping to get round a 15 miler also in Oct, as my primary comeback race.

My surgeon is saying "No running for at least three months" but I'm still hoping to convince him (after the op) to relent a little. Your story is an inspiration.

I don't think there'll be any Heartbreak Hills for you this year!

Way to go PC survivors!!

Posted April 17, 2008 06:31 AM

Laurie

Kingston

Running is quite an accomplishment for those of us with cancer, undergoing treatments or after surgery. Running my very first 5 km race a few months after having kidney and liver surgeries to reduce my tumour involvement felt like a huge accomplishment (even though it took me nearly 35 minutes!)

Never having jogged before diagnosis, a runner-friend encouraged me to start training for my first race after learning that my neuroendocrine/carcinoid cancer could not be cured.

Exercise became a source of empowerment. Running was a way of proving to myself that I'm physically capable in spite of cancer. Training also helped my mood, my overall endurance and reduced levels of fatigue. The exercise also helps build my strength and will hopefully help me recuperate more quickly from future surgeries.

Finally, as a 35 year old woman, exercise has helped me build confidence and feel better about the changes my body has endured. It was initially difficult to feel feminine and attractive with an abdomen that looks like a series of train-tracks. So, running helps me feel good about myself and my body too. It also gives me a sense of control and realistic goals to work toward.

Best wishes to my cancer-counterparts who are running. We may not be doing marathons (yet), but I still ran further and faster than most of the couch-potatoes that I know!

Laurie

Posted April 16, 2008 02:10 PM

Maureen Nelson

Mississauga

Derm really is an inspiration. There is no way that this setback was going to stop his incredible 17 year Boston Marathon streak. I wish I was going to be there for Derm and for everyone. Derm..you are amazing. Good luck in Boston!

Posted April 14, 2008 04:43 PM

Zarah

Mississauga

Derm, your story is the ultimate example of mind over matter, & an incredible inspiration to everyone especially the running community.
It is an honor to know you & (in the rare occasions), to get to run with you for a few seconds when you zoom by every Sunday morning.
You ROCK.... best of luck in Boston.

Posted April 14, 2008 03:34 PM

Lee

Toronto

Unbelievable courage -- this story should be an inspiration to us all. Amazing what the human spirit is capable of, as well.

Posted April 14, 2008 09:01 AM

gord

mississauga

Derm is a wonderful runner and an even better friend. We crossed the finish line in Boston last year together. I felt honoured. I wish I was going to be there this year. I will support you,him and the rest of the Nomads from my computer as I track the results from start to finish.Good luck!!

Posted April 12, 2008 04:50 PM

Sandra

Mississauga

Derm is an inspiration to all of us who run with him. This article brought tears to my eyes...Great article, Peter!

Good luck in Boston Derm!

Posted April 11, 2008 08:33 PM

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About the Author

Peter HadzipetrosPeter Hadzipetros is a producer for the Consumer and Health sites of CBC News Online. Until he got off the couch and got into long distance running a few years ago, he was a net importer of calories.

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