Why I’m running my 100th marathon with cancer in Philadelphia

Don Wright is shown running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon in Crystal City

Don Wright is shown running the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon in Crystal City

I’m about to run my 100th marathon with cancer, and I’m delighted that I’ll be pounding it out here on the streets of Philadelphia. That’s because life since my terrifying diagnosis 13 years ago has been all about hope. And when it comes to hope, what better city than Philadelphia?

I think of movie fighter Rocky Balboa, and, even more dramatic, this city’s real-life heroes — the Founding Fathers. One of them, Benjamin Franklin, boiled life down to one brilliant sentence: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Well, I’m happy to report that I’m still paying taxes.

Back in 2003, doctors gave me less than five years to live when I was diagnosed with the blood cancer multiple myeloma. It is a rare cancer that affects the bone marrow where our blood cells are made.

I’d just run my first marathon, unaware that anything was wrong with me. I had been to my doctor because I was experiencing back pain, but I assumed it was nothing. After all, I had just completed my first marathon. Sadly, I was wrong. Imagine my horror when the doctor told me I had a form of cancer that was incurable.

But “incurable” does not mean “unbeatable.” Thanks to modern medical advances, I’m alive and well enough to keep working as an attorney. And yes, even while taking cancer medications I’m about to run my 100th marathon because these new treatments are far more advanced than older chemotherapies.

So here I am at 75 — a rocking-chair age for many people in perfect health — having run marathons in all fifty states, and eager to cross the finish line again for the hundredth time. In fact, I’ve raced enough marathon miles to go from the starting line of my first one in Duluth, Minnesota, all the way to the Philadelphia starting line — and back again!

Why am I still going, against all odds? Again, I quote Benjamin Franklin: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

Knowledge.

The kind of knowledge that enabled medical professionals to develop a pill that has saved my life and kept my cancer in check all these years. When I started taking the pill, it was still in its infancy. Nobody made any promises, but I had nothing to lose.

And unlike the horror stories you’ve heard about chemotherapy, this amazing pill didn’t cause me to lose my hair, or my lunch.

Just recently, I have needed an additional cancer treatment to hold the cancer back. After several false starts, my doctors added a new therapeutic. This new one is an IV — not as convenient as a pill, but not the kind that knocks you flat for days either. Believe it or not, I had an infusion on a Tuesday and ran a marathon the following Sunday!

The problem with cancer is that it’s a clever opponent, like a runner who hangs behind you all the way and suddenly passes you at the finish line. It figures out ways to defeat your medications, which is why getting us new medicines is so important.

That’s where we hit the wall, to use a marathoner’s term. For example, most insurance companies make patients pay more out of pocket for pills than they do for the conventional needle-in-the-arm therapy. And that’s why I so passionately run under the social-media banner “eRace Cancer,” to give people like me a voice to fight for medical innovations and access to the treatments we need.

I hope my 100 marathons are an inspiration to other cancer patients, a pinhole of light in what can be a dark sky when the shock of the diagnosis first hits.

With medical advances, that pinhole can become a beacon faster than you can imagine. I’m living proof of that. To cancer patients I say: Don’t give up hope. To policy makers I say: Don’t give up on us.

I can’t wait to hit that starting line on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. I’ve got a feeling the Philadelphia Marathon is going to be really special, with its course so rich in beauty and history. Just as importantly, it’s flat — a bonus for all 30,000 runners taking the challenge.

We all hate hills, and believe me, my fight against cancer is the steepest hill of all!If I’ve learned anything from fighting cancer and running all these marathons, it’s there’s no such thing as a finish line. Not for me, anyway.

With progress, life is good. In fact, it’s great. I feel that way every time I cross the finish line and fall into the arms of Ardis, my beloved wife of 53 years.

Allow me to quote Benjamin Franklin just one more time: “I wake up every morning and I look at the obituary page. If my name is not in it, I get up.”

Thanks to modern medicine, that’s working for me.

When Don Wright was diagnosed with a bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma in 2003, doctors estimated he would live five years. Since then he has run marathons in all 50 states to raise awareness for people living with cancer. He will run his 100th marathon in Philadelphia on Nov. 20, 2016.

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