Even the biggest set-backs can't keep her out of the race.
It’s Christmas Day, 2014, and Lisa decides to take her dogs on a scenic farm run with a friend before enjoying the holiday and all its tasty foods and treats. The run is pleasant, the dogs are happy, and they all return to the truck when Lisa notices something. Her hand brushes against her leg and she feels a lump in her quad muscle. It is hard, deep, and about the size of a half a lemon.
“I didn't think too much of it because I had been running around with the dogs, but it seemed odd that it didn't hurt,” she says. “I felt my other leg, and my friend’s leg, and didn't feel anything.”
Figuring she should at least get it checked out, Lisa schedules an appointment with her doctor the following day. At her visit, the doctor didn’t think the lump was anything serious; it was likely lipoma. Nonetheless, imaging and a biopsy were ordered. Lisa’s doctor also recommended she see a plastic surgeon, so she went.
“Before the plastic surgeon ever looked at my leg, he said he was a black belt at excising lipomas. His confidence was a little concerning, but he was the ‘best of the best’ according to my doctor.” Lisa asked the surgeon if lipomas look like fat cells because that’s what she thought the MRI showed. When they reviewed the MRI results together, the surgeon confirmed that lipomas do look like fat cells on the scan. That was promising.
A few days later, the results of the biopsy came back and the doctor confirmed that the mass was a lipoma and that she could have it removed at any time; there was no need to rush. “I waited a month to have it removed because I was signed up to run two half marathons in the upcoming weeks.” But the mass was hot to the touch, growing rapidly, and starting to cause Lisa quite a bit of pain. The surgery was soon, but Lisa was starting to second guess that “everything was fine.”
In mid-March 2015, Lisa had surgery to remove the mass. When she woke up from her anesthetic slumber, she discovered a giant brace on her leg. The nurse told her the surgeon had to dig deeper within the muscle to find the mass, and what they found was about 6 inches long and the size of a bratwurst. It was extracted in three pieces and the doctor assured Lisa that the entire mass had been removed. Lisa’s incision was, as she puts it, “a hack job” but her nurse was also a runner which offered her a bit of a silver lining. “We talked about different runs she had done and ones I had done. I don’t remember much of the conversation because of the anesthesia, but we are Facebook friends,” Lisa smiles.
Then the pathology results came back, and Lisa was told the mass was cancerous. It was a fast growing cancer, and Lisa was fortunate to notice the lump when she did, but should have had the original mass removed sooner. Again, it had grown from the size of half a lemon to the size of a bratwurst in a few short weeks. “I was naïve to the whole cancer thing and didn’t realize that breaking the mass and extracting it in three pieces would be an issue,” she shares, “I thought I'd have a few weeks radiation and be done with it. That was NOT the case.”
I was naïve to the whole cancer thing and didn’t realize that breaking the mass and extracting it in three pieces would be an issue.
Lisa’s oncologist informed her that they would need to remove a portion of the affected muscle and any surrounding damaged tissue. Lisa recalls the exchange:
“I was in shock. He drew what seemed like a football size oval on my leg and said that it all needed to go. My first words were, "well that's a shi**y thing to tell a runner." He agreed, and I asked if I'd ever run again because I had a bucket list of races. He asked what was on it, and I mentioned the Goofy Challenge at Disney, which is a half marathon one day and a full marathon the next. He told me not to sign up quite yet.”
This exchange got Lisa thinking, “Will I even be able to walk? Will I have a weird gait?” But her oncologist assured her that she would be able to walk and that running would depend on her determination and dedication to physical therapy. Feeling more confident with this news, Lisa says her goal was 100 half marathons, “But first, I had to get this cancer thing taken care of.”
Five weeks of radiation. Five days a week. Then eight weeks of rest to allow the radiation to continue localizing the cancer cells. Finally, on June 23, 2015, Lisa had a muscle resection. She had surgery in the morning, and to her surprise, she was able to walk by that same afternoon and started physical therapy four days after surgery. Lisa shares that recovery was mostly seamless. They had to be cautious of the incision splitting open because of the radiation. Luckily, the incision never split, but there was a lot of drainage and then the drainage tube caused a staph infection. Three months later, the incision had healed and Lisa was progressing through physical therapy.
"First, I had to get this cancer thing taken care of."
“PT was grueling, but I was on a mission.” Lisa vividly remembers not being able to step off a two-inch high phonebook and that climbing the set of four stairs in the PT office was her big goal. “Every day that I wasn't working with the therapist, I was on those stairs trying to get up and down. It took some time, but I did it!”
Running, she shares, took a bit longer. For months, her leg would buckle when she walked to the point where it was almost funny. “It was kind of comical to be walking along and then whoooaaaaa, there goes the leg. I never went down, but my coworker would laugh every time.”
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving 2016, nearly two years after that fateful Christmas Day run, that Lisa ran her first return-to-running organized run. She ran a local Turkey Trot with her dog, Bama. A few more medical set-backs prevented her from really getting into running, but she finally ran her comeback half marathon in October 2017, the El Conquistador in Bradenton, Florida.
“It felt amazing to finish that race! My pace was pretty good too. But I wasn't done.” Lisa continued to run with friends multiple times per week and competed in more half marathons, afterward, she felt she was finally ready for a full marathon. She trained well, felt great, and was gearing up for a great marathon. A few weeks before the marathon...another lump. This time in her good leg. This time, Lisa wasted no time running to the doctor (no pun intended). She anxiously waited for the results, and felt relieved when told it was just edema. Counting down the days to her full marathon, Lisa developed tendonitis in her bad leg. “I ran the race and was able to limp along and finish the half marathon and figured 26.2 miles just wasn’t in the cards, but I was okay with that.”
When asked why she was so determined to run again, Lisa laughs and says she actually doesn’t like running all that much, but she does it for fitness and so she can enjoy more of her favorite foods (carne asada anyone?). “I don’t know, people ask how I stayed strong, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to be strong. I had to live, I had to be able to walk,” she offers.
Lisa hopes to continue running, but she says she is happy to hang up her sneakers and just stick to her hiking boots. Since the surgeries, she has hiked across the Grand Canyon, through rainforests in Australia and Tasmania, through a blizzard, Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park, and 100 miles in 7 days at Glacier National Park.
“I’m not done,” she says, “I have so many more adventures in me that a little thing like a sarcoma and lack of a vastus medialis will not stop me. No way, no how.”
Lisa has recently visited the Mighty 5 in Utah and is running the Yosemite half marathon in May, and she’s looking forward to more adventures in Switzerland and Iceland in the coming years.
To cancer, she grins and says “Sorry, not sorry!”
Miles That Matter, is Vacation Races' blog segment where we share inspiring and touching stories from our runners. Some stories may make you cry, some may surprise you, and others may give you the grit to get out there and do the darn thing. Over the years, we've been inspired by the compassion and determination of our runners and this is just one small way that we can share their stories to uplift even more people. Our runners do the hard work; we're just here to share their voices.