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(Getty Image | Herera stock photo/Getty Image | Herera stock photo)
(Getty Image | Herera stock photo/Getty Image | Herera stock photo)

In spite of cancer, I remain a runner Add to ...

I am buzzing on steroids. Not the illegal ones that could get me into trouble, but the prescribed ones that will help me make it through my final chemotherapy treatment.

My conundrum, as I navigate my cancer maze, is that first and foremost I have always been an athlete and I can't seem to forgo this need and passion. I am not willing to stop running. Eight rounds of chemotherapy later, I am still a runner. More correctly, I am reduced to a trotter. But I am still getting out there five days a week.

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I ran the New York City Marathon on Nov. 7, 2010, exactly two weeks after learning of my cancer diagnosis and 10 days before my scheduled mastectomy. It was a joyful and cloudy experience all at once. I had trained all summer and I wasn't going to let this medical hurdle change my plans. There were many naysayers, too many to count. I hate to admit it but this played a role in cementing my resolve to run.

I researched, as best I could, what negative impact running might have on my long-term prospects and I came up empty-handed. Even my surgeon gave me the green light. I finished the marathon in the top 6 per cent of all women.

It's hard to find any legitimate medical research in support of this type of endeavour. The current literature says gentle exercise is the perfect antidote to stress and chemotherapy, but there is very little information on 42.2-kilometre marathon runs.

My oncologist raised an eyebrow but was complicit with my plan. I told him I needed to run and he told me that as long as I listened to my body, he saw no problem. I tried to get my body to tell me what I wanted to hear.

This is where things became complicated. What marathon runners haven't heard their body tell them to quit? We're stubborn. I had a difficult time learning if the occasional diatribe in my head was the runner voice or the cancer voice. It has taken me some time to figure it out, but I am slowly getting there. My ego, always delicate, has endured a great deal of uncomfortable rewiring as the weeks have unfolded. I needed to stop validating my success according to the stopwatch at the finish line.

I entered the Around the Bay 30-kilometre race in Hamilton on March 27, but the timing was unfortunate - five days after my sixth chemotherapy treatment. By this point I was smart enough to know that completing 30 kilometres was a ridiculous idea, so I shamelessly cashed in a "cancer card" with the organizers. They were kind enough to allow me to compete in the two-person relay event with a friend.

I let my friend run the first half of the event; I selfishly wanted to complete the back half full of rolling hills and scenery. This 15-kilometre endeavour was difficult beyond comprehension. I was forced to walk more times than I care to confess. I like to think I was listening to my body, although I'm sure it was telling me I was being a complete and utter idiot. The painkillers still lingering in my system helped to temper the onslaught of this verbal attack.

Although it was satisfying to finish the event, I also felt incredibly saddened by what was becoming of me, the athlete.

As I have lost tissue to a mastectomy, my waist-length hair to chemotherapy and some sense of my femininity, I have become resolved to try to control what aspects of my life I still can. Hence my need to run. I have almost finished five weeks of radiation treatment and I have kept on running, all the while listening to that pesky voice.

If you are not an athlete who is addicted to long-distance running I can't expect you to understand this need I have to keep being part of the scene. Simply put, a cancer diagnosis has left so many aspects of my life seeming to spiral out of control that running has afforded me some semblance of normalcy.

When women run past me on the trails it leaves me confused. Particularly if they are sporting a perky ponytail. I am learning to let it be, but still I struggle. My running group, all men in their 30s to 60s, has been fascinating through this entire journey. They refuse to leave me behind. They escorted me through New York. They stayed with me during the Around the Bay Road Race and lately on training runs they circle back. They are beginning to look more like turkey vultures.

I am overwhelmed by their support. Most of them try their hardest to tell me I am strong and they are proud of me. The rest don't seem to know what to say, which I understand. I have not let them see me cry. I save these meltdowns for the comfort of my own home.

When I learned of the recent death of Grete Waitz at the young age of 57, I was saddened beyond words. She had cancer and was the nine-time winner of the New York City Marathon. When I was a teenager, she had a profound influence on my desire to some day become a distance runner.

Tomorrow I will run again on the trails or on the roads because I can, I want to and I feel the need. I have given my cancer VIP status but I will not promote it to CEO.

Mary St. James lives in Oakville, Ont.

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