After surviving childhood cancer, running marathons is my way to give back

2014-07-21 14:41:56 by Matt Tullis - Former Patient, as posted on the blog.

Matt running in the Wooster Wellness 5K Running in the Wooster Wellness 5K

I had a recurring dream when I was a 15 year old being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at Akron Children’s Hospital in the winter of 1991.

In the dream, I was running, faster than I ever had before. The dream no doubt stemmed from the fact that I was entirely immobile, or at least had decided to be, in the midst of a barrage of chemotherapy treatments.

In the dream, I reveled in the speed at which my own feet carried me. I never considered myself a runner before then, and truth be told, never thought I would run once I survived and started rebuilding a new normal life.

I found out I had leukemia in Wooster on Jan. 2, 1991, and received treatments in Akron until March 1993. That 785-day span included a 70-day-stay on 4-North in Akron Children’s Hospital immediately following my diagnosis.

Matt at Camp CHOPS - Akron Children's summer camp for cancer patients - in 1991 Camp CHOPS - Akron Children's summer camp for cancer patients - in 1991

During those 70 days, I developed spinal meningitis and a host of other complications. But I ultimately went home because of the excellent care of the late Dr. Alex Koufos and the incredible nursing staff.

I’ve led a remarkably successful life since then, one in which I left behind those dark days fighting leukemia. I was a newspaper reporter and am now a professor at Ashland University.

I still write, sometimes for national audiences. I married a wonderful woman and have two amazing kids (especially amazing considering I wasn’t left sterile by the medicines I received).

A couple years ago, though, I realized I was letting my health get away from me. When I tipped the scales at more than 200 lbs. (I left Akron Children’s weighing less than 100), I knew I had to do something.

So I started running. And I started thinking about what I had gone through, and how I could help kids who are fighting what I fought two decades ago.

Now I’m getting ready for my first full-length marathon. I realized there was only one marathon that should be my first, and it would be the Akron Marathon. The finish line, after all, is in Canal Park, easily within site of Akron Children’s.

I imagine myself finishing the 26th mile and looking over at the hospital, thinking about how far I’ve come, and how it’s only been possible because of the people who work there.

I’m also running the marathon as a member of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. This is my second team event now — I did the Cleveland Rock and Roll Half-Marathon last fall.

Matt running in the Wooster Wellness 5K

I’ve long wanted to give back to the organizations that helped me survive, and now that I’ve helped myself hopefully extend that survivorship by actually caring about my own health, I can help these fine organizations.

I’m running, on average, about 20 miles a week right now to get ready for the marathon. That mileage will increase slowly through August. I spend so many of those miles thinking about the days I spent at Akron Children’s, when the only exercise I got came from nurses forcing me out of my bed, making me walk down the hallway, dragging my IV pump behind me.

Those walks seemed like they spread on for miles despite only lasting maybe 50 feet. Now the miles fly by.

I also spend a lot of time thinking about a lot of the patients I got to know while I was a mainstay at Akron Children’s. A lot of them didn’t make it. Of course, at the time, the survival rate for my disease was less then 60 percent.

When I think about those patients — Melissa, Todd, John, Shelby, Laura Jo, Tim, Terri — I think about why I’m really running, and it comes down to this: I’m running because they can’t.

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