Getting My Life Back

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by Chris Bonyun

The Running Room teaches a “SMART” approach to goal setting, but sometimes goals come from somewhere else. In 2017, my goals were based on a deeply personal, irrational and obsessive drive to get my life back. And, on December 31st, I showed myself that I’m well on my way with my fastest 5K of the year, in the bitterly cold weather of the Ottawa Resolution Run.

My last run in 2016 was a dreadful 5K time trial in October. I had been feeling under the weather for several weeks with a bit of a cough, but I decided to tough it out anyway. As I finished the run, well after my target time, I found that I could not get any air into my lungs. I felt that every breath was a struggle and I would never breathe properly again.

A trip to the emergency room in January gave me a full explanation of what was going on. I had stage 4 thyroid cancer that had invaded my trachea, blocking over 50% of my airway. The next day, I was given an emergency tracheostomy to ease my breathing. The doctors expected that I had the most aggressive form of thyroid cancer and I should be prepared for the worst possible news.

Five days later, the biopsy came back with good news. The cancer was a less aggressive variant and could be treated by surgery. Over the weeks that followed, I became determined to return to normal life, even as I learned more about the different paths my surgery and recovery could take.

The surgery was a success. No extra body parts were required to rebuild my esophagus, the best option for restoring speech was possible, and it looked like the cancer was well contained. As expected, the surgeons needed to remove my voice box completely, along with the thyroid, parathyroid, lymph nodes, and a chunk of my trachea. I was left with a hole in my neck through which I will breathe for the rest of my life.

I was desperate not to let this defeat me—I needed to get back to work and back to running. After fighting with my insurance provider, I was finally allowed to return to full-time work in August.

Not surprisingly, the return to running was much more gradual.

I had not been exercising for months. I’d also had major surgery, lost 30 pounds, and was still recovering physically and emotionally. I started back with the Learn To Run training program and gradually eased myself back into a schedule of regular workouts. Following that, I returned to the 5K program—my home at the Running Room.

The fall and winter presented new challenges. Could I run in cold weather? What should I wear? I learned many new things during this time. I found that I needed to keep my neck exposed to the elements, as any attempt to cover it up makes it difficult to breathe. In addition, I run best after removing the filter that goes over my breathing hole. On the bright side, I could cover my face in cold weather and not fog up my glasses for the first time since I was 12 years old. And finally, I learned that that the baseplate, which holds the filter in place, comes unglued from my skin after every run. Despite these challenges, I can indeed run in cold weather, and I’m thrilled.

Throughout this whole ordeal, I have felt tremendous support from my Running Room “family.” Many fellow runners were following my daily blog updates, visited me during my convalescence, and there was a great turnout at the party we threw to celebrate my continued existence. This has been a key part of my recovery.

So what goals am I setting for 2018? From a running perspective, my goal is to work on getting my 5K time back down to (and possibly below) my personal best, which I set at the 2015 Army Run. Beyond that, who knows? Mainly, I intend to keep running for as long as I can. I continue to remind myself that life is fragile, to take each day as it comes, and to enjoy it to the fullest.