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Michael Stephensen with his sister-in-law Jackie at the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis in October, 2012.
Michael Stephensen with his sister-in-law Jackie at the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis in October, 2012.

He beat cancer twice - but this reader's next feat will leave you breathless Add to ...

The Motivator is a recurring series that features one spectacular reader – someone who’s an inspiration to others. Know a motivator?  Email community editor Amberly McAteer here and share your inspirational story

Michael Stephensen, 54, Winnipeg

My story: I’m a family doctor, a husband and a father. When my wife was diagnosed with cancer and survived it 15 years ago, I thought that would be our biggest battle. Six years later, when I was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent treatment and surgery, I thought that had to be it. After the cancer was behind me, I took up running – not for the joy of running, as some do, but for the sense of accomplishment. I loved the challenge and the feeling that, as a cancer survivor, I could still be out there. Finishing half or full marathons made me feel as if I was back to normal.

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I became hooked on that feeling, and in 2011, I was on a relay team and ran two legs of the Canadian Death Race, a 125-kilometre foot race through the Rocky Mountains in Grande Cache, Alta. On the journey back home, I remember joking about one day doing the race solo. Three times longer than a marathon! No one would ever hold me to that, I thought.

Just a month later, the cancer came back. This time, it was in my abdomen. What followed was gruelling treatment: 21 sessions of chemo in 63 days. I wasn’t allowed to run during that time because of low blood counts and risk of bleeding into traumatized knees or hips.

I finished chemo on New Year’s Eve and began training for the Winnipeg’s Hypothermic Half Marathon, which was just seven weeks later, in late February. I’d run this race four or five times and really liked it. I finished it in my slowest time ever, and then found out that I had some chemo-induced lung and kidney toxicity after the race. I was not allowed to run again for several more months until my lungs and kidneys recovered.

During that time, the cancer was more annoying than it already was. Years earlier, it had already robbed my wife and me of the comforting sense of health and the feeling that you will be there while your children grow up. But now, the third time cancer hit us, I started really getting irked.

Throughout chemo and the recovery afterward, I viewed running again as an indication that I was finally – finally! – getting back to health, getting back to being me again. As my hair came back and the mouth sores, fatigue and shortness of breath went away, and I began to run again, I felt as if I had beaten cancer. Gradually, I started really seeing myself run the Canadian Death Race alone: The race became linked with cancer, in my mind. I had to run it, and do it alone, to know that I was fully back – unhindered.

The only problem: Was it possible for a 54-year-old desk jockey to run a 125-kilometre race with 17,000 feet of elevation changes in a 24-hour time limit?

Well, everything came together late last year when Curb Ivanic, a professional trainer and ultra-marathoner, saw my blog and offered to train me. Since last November that is what we have been doing.

I’ve started fundraising for Cancer Care Manitoba as part of my CDR journey. Cancer Care had given so much to my wife, and I want to give back. So far, I’ve raised more than $20,000 for this organization that has given me so much more.

This August long weekend, I’ll run the Canadian Death Race alone – and finally put cancer behind me.

My darkest moment:When my wife was diagnosed with cancer, the first time we heard that word. Our kids were 7, 5 and 4. We didn’t know how things would go or whether she would survive.

Being a physician didn’t help much with the emotional aspects of knowing my partner in life may not be around. I worried about my children growing up without their mother. That feeling, throughout all of this, was the worst. Today, our kids are 21, 19 and 18, and Allison is healthy and disease-free.

My inspiration:My wife is the strongest person I know. I don’t think she knows it, but I draw strength and motivation from her every single day. My kids have been very supportive of my training for this race as have my extended family and friends. The support has been tremendous. My sister-in-law Jackie, an accomplished marathoner and Ironman triathlete, has mentored me since I started running about eight years ago.

Know a motivator?  Email community editor Amberly McAteer here and share your inspirational story

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