April 11, 2019
How running has helped me through two ocular melanoma diagnoses
BY Britta Fortson
When I began running at age 17, I ran about three times a week because it made me feel good and helped me maintain a healthy weight. It soon became a routine and a healthy hobby that helped me manage stress and anxiety and, best of all, socialize with other runners.
After I’d been running for about a year, I was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a very rare eye cancer. The cancer, thankfully, was only in my optic nerve and hadn’t spread, so I had radioactive plaque surgery to treat the tumor. At age 22, I was declared cancer-free.
Running helped me cope with stress of my cancer diagnosis
At that point, running became even more important. It helped me deal with the stress of a cancer diagnosis at such a young age.
When I was 25, I ran my first marathon – something on my surviving cancer bucket list. I didn't run very fast, but I was so proud of myself. I continued to run on and off throughout my 20s and 30s. As I got older, I got married, started my career as a speech pathologist and had two kids. After the second one, I had trouble losing the baby weight, so I kicked my running up a notch.
Soon, I realized I could be pretty fast. I started training for another marathon, this time with the goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I competed in every race I could – from a 5K to an ultra-marathon (50K). Running defined me, right along with being a wife and mother.
An unexpected ocular melanoma recurrence
I qualified for the Boston Marathon many times and ran it in 2009 and 2012. In 2015, at age 32, I was running in Boston again when my local doctor noticed elevated liver enzymes in my bloodwork. He suggested a liver ultrasound, but I put it off until after the marathon.
When I came home, I had the ultrasound and got a call from my doctor. It was not good news. After more than 20 years, the melanoma had returned and metastasized to my liver.
I was told that I had only six months to live and should begin getting my affairs in order. I was stressed, anxious and depressed. So I kept running. I ran after difficult conversations with doctors, family and friends, and I ran despite feeling like I wouldn’t be around much longer.
Choosing the experts and an immunotherapy clinical trial for my ocular melanoma treatment
In June 2015, I traveled from my home in Jacksonville, Florida, to MD Anderson to see an expert in ocular melanoma, Dr. Sapna Patel. She gave me hope with a new immunotherapy clinical trial. Still, I was worried and scared, so I continued to run.
I started the clinical trial in August 2015, and the immunotherapy side effects were tough. I had constant diarrhea, lung inflammation, arthritis, anemia, fatigue and frequent sinus infections. I was also depressed – I’d lost multiple friends to this disease, and most days I felt like I was losing the battle.
I was on immunotherapy for two years and ran the entire time. I had good weeks and bad, but I kept trying. Once, in New York, I could barely run two miles. Turns out, I’d broken two ribs from coughing, caused by lung inflammation from the immunotherapy. At that point, I thought I’d never run a marathon again.
But, by the grace of God, my tumors shrank. In August 2017, I had a liver resection scheduled and I ran 10 miles the day before the surgery. After the surgery, Dr. Patel declared me cancer-free, but I could barely walk, let alone run.
Eventually, I recovered, and by October, I was back in the game. I was ready to train for a marathon, and I was determined to qualify for Boston again. I trained hard, ran the Tomoka Marathon in March 2018, and qualified to run the Boston marathon again.
Running has helped me through ocular melanoma and immunotherapy side effects
So far, all of my follow-up scans at MD Anderson have been clear, and I've felt good. I’ve tapered off most of the medicines used to treat my side effects, and running helped me get through it all.
In October 2018, I ran the Chicago marathon and qualified again for Boston. That was my second marathon after surviving metastatic ocular melanoma, and this April, I am running the 2019 Boston Marathon.
I have been given another chance at life, so I wouldn’t miss out. I am running for the friends I’ve made during my battle, including those who are no longer here and those who cannot run. I am ecstatic I can do this race and so proud to be a part of the running community that embraced me and encouraged me throughout this process.
It means the world to me to be able to run this race again, after cancer. There are moments in everyone's lives that help define who they are. The moment I cross the finish line in Boston will be one of mine.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
It means the world to me to be able to run this race again, after cancer.