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Running His Race

Michael Kelly sits on the weathered front steps of his home in the country, lacing up his silver and red running shoes.

The well-worn Asics should have been replaced six months ago, but he can’t bring himself to throw them out.

“These are the shoes I had to neglect for so long,” Michael says, as he finishes tying the laces, a view of cornfields and windmills on his horizon. “It’s so good to be able to run again.”

Before the 48-year-old man was diagnosed with cancer at the base of his tongue, he used to plan his day around his daily training session. It was his time to clear his head and problem solve.

During his battle to overcome the cancer and the fatigue that came with his lifesaving treatments, he looked at those running shoes hanging up in the corner and dreamed. Some day he would get back on the road for a daily run.

“I said from the beginning, ‘I will do all the work I can to be a survivor,’” Michael says. “The way I live my life is to say, ‘what can come out of this? What can I learn from this?’ All I could do was to move forward.”

Surprising news

In the spring of 2011, after nearly 30 years of working as a graphic artist for a local company, Michael had just moved into a home office in the 100-year-old farmhouse that his family has restored just outside Orange City, Iowa. He enjoyed having a flexible schedule that gave him plenty of time for family and his running.

The very fit, healthy man was surprised when some unexplained swelling in his throat turned out to be cancer.

“I didn’t dawn on me that it could be cancer,” Michael says, sipping from a glass of water. “It was like a ton of bricks had fallen on us.”

From the start, Michael moved into a “coping and surviving mode,” he told his wife that he would add a role as a cancer survivor to his list of things he planned to accomplish in life. He chose Sanford for his care due to with oral cancer specialist Dr. John Lee’s expertise, he said.

“As soon as he walked into the room, our confidence level skyrocketed,” Michael says. “We walked out of there thinking this was something we could do.”

He grins, a little sheepishly, as he describes his meeting with the doctor who both researches and treats head and neck cancer. One of his first questions was, “will I be able to run?” Dr. Lee’s answer was, “you can run whenever you feel like it.” What Michael discovered was that the running would take a back seat to saving his life.

A new training regimen

Michael underwent a seven-week program of concurrent radiation and chemotherapy treatments, followed by a surgery to ensure that all the cancer was gone. A friend had made a paper chain with a link of inspirational sayings for every day that the family taped in the entryway of their home.

Every day he would take a link off the chain and look forward to the end of his treatments. When the chain was gone, he thought the difficult days were done, but quickly learned that his energy levels would sink even lower and he would require some emergency hospitalizations in the following weeks.

“Even during the worst, everybody on Dr. Lee’s team was so caring and competent,” Michael said. “They treated me like I was their only patient.”

Sanford’s survivorship program and supportive services helped him deal with the side effects that made it nearly impossible to eat and zapped his energy. He had dropped 37 pounds from his already slim frame. A feeding tube and cooking classes designed specifically for oral cancer patients helped him provide the nutrients his body needed and let him help build back his stamina and weight.

Taking his life back

As he started to feel better, Michael knew it was time to take charge again of his life. With his doctor’s permission, he started training for a one-mile St. Patrick’s Day race. He took it slowly, starting out with only an eighth of a mile run per day.

On race day, he felt incredible. His entire family registered to run that day. The route was easy – all downhill with the wind at his back – but the experience was incredible.

“I was elated. You could have thought I was finishing my first marathon,” Michael says. “I felt like a real runner again.”

Michael’s training runs are a little different today than they used to be. Rather than dreaming of marathons, he’s looking for a six-mile race to register for. He carries water with him to help with a persistent dry throat, a side effect of his treatment.

But he loves every minute he can hit a nearby trail in his well-loved running shoes. He’s thankful everyday to be alive and feeling good.

“I dream all day about the minute when I can lace up the shoes,” Michael says, taking a turn down a tree-lined path. “I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.”

Posted Date: March 2013