I’m incredibly proud and excited to announce that on April 17th, 2017, I will be participating in the 121st running of the Boston Marathon as a member of the Dana-Farber Marathon Team. There are two ways to enter the Boston Marathon: surpassing a timed qualification from a previous marathon (which for the 18-34 age group is 3 hours and 5 minutes, which works out to be 7:05 per mile), or teaming up with a charity to raise money for a given cause. Recently, I decided to apply for the latter, and was lucky enough to be selected to join the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute team after an application process that took about two weeks.
Some of you probably have a pretty good idea why this cause is so important to me. Others may not. Hopefully, the word will spread to many of you out there who don’t even know me at all.
My name is Ethan Miller, and this is my story.
(If you are interested in making a donation, you can check out my Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge page here).
Around five years ago, heading into my sophomore year of college, I decided to take my extremely limited talents from Upstate New York to Northwest Arkansas, ultimately looking to pursue an education at the University of Arkansas. My mom and step-dad graciously allowed me to stay with them in Rogers until I was able to claim in-state tuition, so I spent my first few months in the state at Northwest Arkansas Community College. It was a bit of a mixed bag. It was tough living so far away from a place I called home for the entire duration of my life, and as an only child, it was especially tough sharing a home with two step-sisters in elementary school. Still, it was great being able to spend time with my mom, and the change of scenery was much needed. I really grew to love my new home in the south, and in that first semester of community college, I posted my best GPA since middle school.
I was ready to head back home for the holidays when I noticed something out of the ordinary. A small bump on my testicle. It was a bit alarming, but also not something I was in too much of a hurry to discuss. “Hey mom, I found a lump on my nut today” surely isn’t a conversation any 19 year-old kid wants to have. Eventually, I worked up the courage to talk about it.
That very well could have saved my life.
A few hospital visits and tests later, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The excitement for reuniting with friends and family during the holiday season was very quickly replaced with the fear and anxiety that go hand in hand with such a diagnosis. The doctor assured me that although this wasn’t an ideal situation, the cancer was found at an early stage, and after a few rounds of chemotherapy, I’d be back to living a normal life soon enough. This did a great deal to put me at ease, but I was still a bit terrified by the unknown. In a time when I thought I finally got my life together and had the next few years of my life planned out, I suddenly had no idea what to expect in the days or weeks ahead.
Still, I realized very early on that I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. My step-dad told me about is good friend Stephanie Mohn who was diagnosed with a very serious form of breast cancer. He told me that despite doctors projections of her life expectancy, she continued to beat the odds, which he attributed to her up-beat personality and positive mindset in the face of the brutal disease. That really resonated with me. I realized that I couldn’t let what very little I had control over, such as my attitude, mindset, and reactions, be detrimental in an already adverse situation.
Two days after Christmas, I had surgery to get my testicle removed. *Pours one out for the homie.* It wasn’t terrible, but the incision was made in my abdomen, so I was physically unable to move for days. After a few weeks of rest and recovery, I started my chemotherapy treatments: four sets of five days chemo followed by two weeks of rest.
It’s hard to put into words just how horrendous that experience was. We of course all know how awful cancer is, but it’s hard to really understand what patients go through until you yourself are in the belly of the beast. The first set of my treatments actually weren’t that bad, as my spirits were still high and I was still feeling alright physically. I even felt good enough to run 6 miles toward the end of the first resting phase. But then I started losing my hair. The treatments kept coming. Then went my appetite. Then my strength.
Despite all of the metaphors you may have heard, let me be the first to tell you, cancer is not a fight. It is not a war. It is not a battle. It’s about as much of a “fight” as getting in the ring for 12 rounds against Mike Tyson with your hands tied behind your back. There are no counter-punches. There are no exchanges of blows. There is nothing you can do, other than hold out hope that you’re physically and mentally strong enough to withstand the poison and disease ravaging your body.
Life during chemotherapy got progressively worse as the time passed. With each additional treatment, every hour strapped to your machine in that god forsaken chair, the side-effects intensified. The nausea and stomach aches got worse. Food was harder and harder to eat. The vomiting became all too common. It got hard to keep even a sip of water down. Worst of all, the two weeks of rest seemed to end all too quickly.
Then came set number three.
This was such a hard part of the treatment, because not only are your insides turning faster and harder with each passing day, it’s hard not to be absolutely demoralized by how much longer you have to go. I’d love to sit here and tell you how I was able to keep my positive attitude and stay up-beat. I’d love to say that I was a total Billy Badass and was completely unfazed by these treatments, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. After the first day or two, I vividly remember crawling into bed, trying desperately to get some sleep, secretly hoping that I wouldn’t wake up again. It seems crazy to reflect on that moment now that I’m almost five years in remission (spoiler alert: I made it through), but that’s just the reality of life with cancer. It doesn’t matter how physically strong you are, how mentally strong you are, how happy you are, or how positive you are. It will break you.
Slowly but surely, I was able to withstand that grueling third set. Day three came and went, and I was over the hump. Then day four. Then it was all over. Two more weeks of rest before the final treatment. Though the fourth set was probably the most intense, it almost didn’t matter because I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how bad it got, it was only a few short days until I could close the chapter on this part of my life and move on. Eventually, that’s exactly how it played out.
A few weeks of resting and a few tests later, I got the news that I was in remission, and a few months later, I received my letter of acceptance from the University of Arkansas. Finally, cancer was in the rear view mirror, and I was able to pick up right where I left off on my pursuit of a degree.
In a weird way, I think cancer was the best thing that could have happened to me. If I’m being honest, before my diagnosis, I was a bit of a prick who didn’t take much seriously. You were definitely more likely to see me out partying and sleeping in class the next day than you were to see me with an open textbook. It really did a lot to change my mindset. I stopped looking at things like school and work as an obligation and started to realize how lucky I was for the opportunity.
My first two years at the University of Arkansas were awesome, and things were looking up. I think I really started to hit my stride at the University, taking full advantage of my clean bill of health, new mindset, and a sense of normalcy that had been absent in my life in those six months prior.
In the fall of my second year, I got a call from my dad. It wasn’t the typical conversation recalling the events of our days or discussing the state of Arkansas football. It was a about my step-mom, Susan. She was diagnosed with a very serious form of ovarian cancer.
My dad and Susan started dating around my junior year of high school. She lived a few hours away in New Hampshire, so she wasn’t constantly present in my life, but I knew she made my dad happy and that was quite alright with me. She would bring her daughters over to visit us in New York and they would come watch my soccer games or basketball games. We all went to concerts together, spent Christmas together, went ice skating, and had plenty of good times throughout the years.
In a weird way, as hopeless as I felt at times during my diagnosis, I felt exactly the opposite about Susan’s. Perhaps I was expecting her experience to be similar to what mine was, and in a few short months, life would be back to normal. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe that life would be cruel enough to take a mother away from two young daughters and a family who loved her dearly.
As much as I kept the faith that everything would be okay, I still did have that feeling of helplessness that seems to be universal with the cancer experience. Whether you’re living it first hand, or watching someone you love go through it, it’s hard to understate how powerless you feel. No matter what you do, it’s all out of your hands, no questions asked. Being a broke college student with very few opportunities to make it home definitely didn’t do much to help that feeling, either.
As the months progressed, Susan’s health continued to deteriorate. I tried to do what I could, as minimal as my contributions may have been. When I was home on breaks, I tried my best to get out to the state of New Hampshire and visit. When I was at school, I tried to avoid bringing up Susan’s health when talking to my dad, a decision that may or may not have been helpful. I wanted to be there for him during these trying times, but I also didn’t want to poke and prod unless he was comfortable talking about it. Maybe that gave the wrong impression that I didn’t care about what was going on, but I thought it would serve as a way to take my dads mind off of things or re-establish that sense of normalcy for however brief the day’s conversation may have been. Perhaps it also served as a defense mechanism, because I never really wanted to come to terms with the fact this story might not get it’s happily ever after.
A few months later, Susan was moved to a hospital in Boston, where she would continue to be monitored and treated. It seemed as though things were looking very grim. One afternoon, my dad called me with an eerie calmness in his voice. He told me that she wasn’t going to make it to see the next day, and I had but a few hours to say goodbye. Even in the prior weeks and days leading up to this moment, when things weren’t looking great, I held out hope that maybe some kind of miracle would happen and she would bounce back. It wasn’t until that very moment, at the bitter end, I was finally able to accept and come to terms with the terrible reality.
Cancer had broken me yet again.
I spent the majority of those next few hours trying to prepare something to say. I wrote a few things down, but everything just kind of seemed to fall flat. What words can even be said in a situation like this? When I called my dad back, I was a complete and utter mess. I tried to keep it together, and stay calm for one last goodbye, but I couldn’t stop crying. I asked my dad to tell her a couple of things for me. I wanted her to know that I love her, I’ll miss her, and that I will one day run the Boston Marathon in her name. This was an idea I had in the few hours prior, and it just kind of felt right. Susan was born and raised in Massachusetts, and as a lifetime New Englander, I felt it would be a great way to honor her life.
I truly regret not taking the chance to tell her this myself. It probably seems like a cop out, but it was almost impossible for me to replace the uncontrollable sobbing with words. I was absolutely terrified that Susan’s final moments would be with me on the other end of the phone, hysterically crying, struggling to string thoughts into coherent sentences, and that was honestly the last thing I wanted to happen. I don’t know if that was an irrational thought. I’ll never know if I made the correct decision. But I can take solace in the fact that my decision was made from a good place, even if it won’t be one I’m proud of.
I can also take comfort knowing that she knows about my decision to run the marathon. It might sound crazy to some people, but I truly think Susan is somewhere looking down on me, proud of my decision to take on this challenge. She was there with me as we watched my dad cross the Boston Marathon finish line in 2010, and I know she’ll be there with me when I cross the finish line in 2017.
I am incredibly excited for the opportunity to fulfill my promise and honor the life of my amazing step-mom, Susan Sponenberg. In addition, I feel as though it is my duty to do anything in my power to help those feeling helpless, just as I did, due to a cancer diagnosis. I am incredibly excited to try to take a step, however small it may be, toward a world without this horrifying disease.
But I can’t do it without your help.
My goal is to raise $10,000 for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute by the time I cross the finish line in April. If you would like to donate, you can do so directly at my DFMC page here. Every penny raised goes directly to support cancer research done by the Barr Program. (For more information, please click here). If donating isn’t an option, please consider sharing this post to your social media pages to get the word out.
For now, I will continue to spend a bit of time each day in the gym, working hard toward April 17th, reflecting on my time and experiences with cancer. This time, however, it won’t break me. I will continue to become faster and stronger every day in the face of this disease. I will work hard each and every day in memory of Susan Sponenberg and Stephanie Mohn. And I will never give up on the millions of people around the world for whom cancer is a terrible reality each and every day.
Thank you all very much for supporting me in this endeavor.
See you at the finish line.