Running the Marathon with Cancer, by Doug Limbrick

Author/writer, nineteenth century Australian history, emigration, old ships, surviving cancer, marathon running.  Newly released book “Death Ships” now available on website.

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia 

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I fell in love with running over 30 years ago when I joined a large community of runners who became dear friends. It didn’t take me long to realize that running not only provided health benefits but also relaxed me. The stress at work that used to upset me no longer seemed that bad.  

Then, before I knew it I signed up to run a marathon. I never thought I would run a 26-mile race. It seemed daunting. But, with the support of this community, I ran the race and felt incredible afterward. I was hooked. 

Some years later, I spent three months running with three friends in the hills near my home in preparation for my 21st marathon.

With less than 2 weeks before the race, I had a colonoscopy and was shocked to learn I had rectal cancer. Having none of the usual symptoms I found it hard to believe. I was more fit at that point than I had been my entire life. I hadn’t taken a single day off work in over 20 years.  

I wasn’t the only one in disbelief, my friends and family were too. They saw me as a super healthy person. This was an image that I enjoyed. 

The reality was, now everyone knew I was not indestructible. I had to come to terms with my immortality. The ego is a funny thing when it comes to this. 

A week after the diagnosis, I met with a surgeon to discuss treatment. This had been preceded by a blood test, an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging), and a CT or CAT scan (computerized tomography).

The meeting involved a very thorough examination and a detailed explanation about this cancer, the options, and the prognosis. The reality as presented by the surgeon, I required surgery as soon as possible. The doctor explained that the cancerous tumor had been there for some time (possibly years), slowly growing in size. 

Finally, a ray of hope. The surgeon explained that there were some plusses. First, it appeared from the scans that cancer had not spread beyond the rectum. Second, it was located at the back of the rectum, which apparently was good. Third, I was thin and this would make the surgery much simpler (I had little fat tissue to cut through which, according to the surgeon, would make the procedure easier). Fourth, I was very fit and this would assist in my recovery. Even with these plusses the surgery would be complex and would probably take three to four hours. 

I kept thinking this is unreal. I am so fit and healthy this can’t be happening to me. I kept wondering if I would be able to run again. 

I indicated that I was willing to proceed with surgery. The consultation was almost over but, I had to find out if the surgeon thought it would be ok for me to run a marathon in three days’ time. My mates and me not only trained together but encouraged one another. We were going to the same at the race. I didn’t want to be told that I couldn’t do it! This may sound bizarre after what I had been told about the proposed surgery, but emotionally I needed to compete in this event. 

I nervously asked the surgeon the question. He was surprised. He had never been asked it before. After some hesitation, he nodded yes. He thought I should be okay. 

Marathon day arrived and following some last-minute words of support and handshakes we lined up. After a short wait, the gun fired and we were off! Some 3 hours and 20 minutes later I crossed the finish line! I was very pleased I had completed my 21st marathon. I finished strongly, passing many runners in the last 10 kilometers and beating my own time from a race the previous year.

When we had all crossed the finish line, we hugged and tears began to roll down my cheek. My mates weren’t aware of my cancer diagnosis. 

It was time to tell them. None of us knew at that moment they would become a part of my cancer journey. 

A few days later I was in the hospital to have the surgery. I was soon in the hands of the anesthetist and after some chat about what she would be doing, I was asleep. 

I woke in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and found out that the surgery had been successfully undertaken. That was a huge relief. I was in the hospital for two weeks. During that time the surgeon advised me that he had removed some lymph nodes near the location of cancer, for examination at a laboratory.

The results showed cancer cells. This was not good news. In addition, I had a temporary ileostomy to permit healing. It was be reversed after three months.

The news of the cancer cells prolonged the reversal plan and I would require a six-month course of chemotherapy with five weeks of radiotherapy in the middle of that period. 

At the same time as the radiotherapy, I had a continuous infusion of chemotherapy for 5 weeks. This required surgery to have a port-a-cath inserted into my chest. The treatment seemed to go on forever.

Six months passed slowly with a number of the usual chemotherapy side effects (nausea,  mouth ulcers, gritty eyes, tiredness). When I started the continuous chemotherapy it was delivered via a small black box that was connected to my port-a-cath 24 hours a day. 

At about that time I decided to see if I could get back into running as a distraction and a way of helping manage the side effects of the chemotherapy. This proved to be very difficult but after about two weeks I was back into a short run each day (a great feeling being able to run again; a sense of normality). I must have looked rather unusual running with a small black box in one hand. 

Having survived six months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy it was time for more surgry to reverse the temporary ileostomy. I was very keen to get this done as soon as possible so that I could back to normal living. My surgeon insisted I wait a month to allow my immune system to recover from the chemotherapy. 

Having survived six months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy it was time for more surgery to reverse the temporary ileostomy. I was very keen to get this done as soon as possible so that I could get back to normal life. My surgeon insisted that I wait a month to allow my immune system to recover from the chemotherapy. 

The surgery happened and I felt an enormous sense of relief and completion. After a week in the hospital, I went home and started a ‘normal’ life including progressively eating all the usual foods.

My system was now supposed to function normally, all bits having been reconnected. However, a few days later I started to experience severe abdominal pains, diarrhea, and nausea. I was soon back in hospital for tests and scans which revealed that my lower bowel had been severely damaged by the radiotherapy and would need to be removed. After a short stay at home, I was back in hospital for more surgery. 

The surgery took place without any obvious problems. However, removal of the damaged section meant that there was insufficient colon to reconnect to the rectum area. This meant I would have a stoma and require a colostomy and it would be permanent. While this was a shock I accepted that it was better to be pain-free, to quickly learn to manage the colostomy, get strong, and live a cancer-free life. 

Unfortunately, life quickly became complicated. I was soon very unwell and the doctors were concerned because of my rapidly deteriorating condition. I contracted septicemia (blood poisoning) and would require further surgery to potentially save my life. My wife was advised that I likely would not survive

Clearly, I did survive and was kept sedated for 4 days in the ICU. I awoke, to the relief of many, connected to many tubes and devices. Then found out I also had pneumonia. The two weeks in ICU presented new challenges each day. Despite that, I felt that I would survive (my optimism wasn’t always shared by others). 

I spent a total of eight weeks in the hospital with many complications each one being difficult to deal with but I continued to be positive, believing I would have a full recovery. 

I finally left the hospital weighing 115 pounds (52 kilograms) and unable to walk without help.

But, finally, I was ready to begin a cancer-free life. The long process of rehabilitation began with the help of family and many very good friends. 

My journey with cancer involved many twists and turns; a few steps forward and then more complications. I was always optimistic that I was nevertheless on a path to recovery.

The journey was made so much more possible with the enormous support of family and friends. Part of my rehabilitation involved me trying to find the answer to many questions; Why did I get cancer? Why did I survive? What did I learn from this experience?

In addition to recovering physically and getting back to running, I felt I had to try to find answers to these questions. This led me to write about my journey and the understandings that came from exploring these questions. The result is a memoir: Running the Marathon with Cancer. The title I chose for this book is a play on words. When I was diagnosed with cancer I was already an experienced marathon runner (some of my friends may have said that I was addicted to distance running). My cancer treatment was taking longer and longer, and becoming more complex as time went by, and just like my marathons, the finish line was at times barely visible.

With lots of help and encouragement, I regained my strength and got back into running. Life was good. I was able to easily manage my stoma. The doctors were very pleased with my progress. I was slowly back into some club running. While I felt I had recovered some of my running friends felt my recovery would not be complete until I ran another marathon. While this was largely said in jest it did make me wonder if it might be possible for me to do one more. 

My running was much slower, my breathing less efficient and my recovery much longer but I did it! 

This made me wonder if I could undertake the level of training required and sustain it for three months to obtain the level of competition prior to the surgery. With some encouragement, I decided to try. 

The training began with a progressive increase in the distance each week including incorporating a long run. The distance of the long run was increased each week until it was about 22 miles (35 k). These long runs were hard work leaving me tired and with sore legs. At the end of three months, I hoped I was ready for the event. Race day came and as I stood waiting for the start many friends came to wish me well. 

After 4 hours and lots of encouragement along the racecourse, I crossed the finish line. It was a special and key moment because I could say “I’m living cancer-free.” 

I’ve always been an optimistic person and have for a long time believed that anything is possible. That day, as I crossed the finish line I knew it to be true. 

My story began with running a marathon with cancer and finished with me running a marathon cancer-free. In the past few years, I have gone on to complete 4 more marathons.  

“For oft, when on my couch I lie 

In vacant or in pensive mood, 

They flash upon that inward eye 

Which is the bliss of solitude; 

And then my heart with pleasure fills, 

And dances with the daffodils.”

Daffodils~William Wordsworth

Life is great and I am dancing with the daffodils.

Doug Limbrick 

Check out the other inspiring stories “Keep Your Dreams Alive and Make Things Happen, by Margie Miklas” and “My Personal Growth Journey, by Shea Hulse.

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This is the story of my life transformation journey and how I went from poverty, homelessness, and emotionally broken to thriving and living my purpose.

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