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Cancer and running motivated Nevada Magazine’s associate editor to donate his hair.
Photo: Charlie with his mother, Marilyn (left), and sister, Lily
When I hobbled through the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 16 I was drained, disappointed, and slightly delirious. The stiflingly hot and humid day had proven too much, and around mile 10 I scrapped my lofty race goals and conceded to simply finish. Even that was hard.
After finally crossing the finish line, my pride nearly as sore as my legs, I retrieved my belongings and cell phone. Amid the dozen of congratulatory voicemails and text messages waiting was a text from my big sister, Lily: “Great job. I’m very proud of you. You’ll get a hug Wednesday night.”
In three previous Boston Marathons and nearly 30 other marathons, Lily would have been somewhere near the finish line to give me that hug immediately. Not this year. This year she was at home in Sparks, battling cancer, while her little brother ran the Boston Marathon on behalf of the American Cancer Society.
Lily, myself, and the rest of our family have a long history with cancer. Our mother is a 19-year breast cancer survivor, we have all donated our time and money to raise awareness and donations in the fight against the disease, for the last three years I have run the Boston Marathon on behalf of the ACS, and, just weeks before this year’s marathon and a fundraiser during which I donated my hair to make wigs for cancer patients, Lily was herself diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was our mother’s battle with cancer that eventually pushed me to use running—a sport that I took up about the same time I started working for Nevada Magazine a little more than four years ago—to help in the fight against cancer. Despite being 10 years old when my mother was diagnosed, I remember surprisingly little of the whole ordeal.
But one day, a spring day during the height of her treatment when we went to visit her at the hospital, is among my most vivid of memories. She was admitted the day after Mother’s Day 1993 and spent the remainder of May in the hospital, cordoned off in a special sterile wing, complements of her non-existent immune system. When we visited, I thought I was going to get to hug my mom, to have her hold me and tell me everything was going to be all right. That didn’t happen.
Instead, I talked to her on a phone through a plexiglass partition like the ones you see in jails on television crime dramas. Recalling the memory today still makes me cry. My sisters (Lily and our oldest sister, Charlene) still apologize for taking my twin brother, Joseph, and me to the hospital that day. I constantly assure them that they have nothing to be sorry about. It was that day that I resolved to fight cancer and see to it that hopefully, someday, no child would ever have such a memory.
Throughout high school and college I helped organize teams and raise donations for the Relay for Life, a worldwide series of community-based ACS fundraisers in which teams walk around a track in shifts for an entire night. After college, my philanthropic vigor diminished for a couple of years until early 2010, when I stumbled onto a website about an ACS program called DetermiNation. I was already gaining a reputation locally as a strong runner and was about four months from my second Boston Marathon, but looking back, something was missing; it all felt a little empty.
The DetermiNation program struck a chord; it stirred a fire in me that had sat dormant for too long. I signed up and immediately started bombarding friends, family, and coworkers with pleas to donate to my efforts. In exchange for my work, the ACS provided me with a shirt, a brunch with motivational speakers the day before the marathon, and a shuttle to the start line in Hopkinton so I didn’t have to be herded into the fleet of school buses at Boston Common before dawn on the morning of the race.
The phrase “life changing” is thrown around a lot, but the experience with DetermiNation was truly that. I made lifelong friends who also ran (and continue to run) on behalf of the ACS, discovered that my running could actually make a difference for other people, and experienced the amazing generosity and kindness of everyone around me.
In 2011, I returned to again run the Boston Marathon as a DetermiNation athlete, and it was during that race that I realized I needed to do more in the fight against cancer. I decided to grow my hair to donate for wigs. Since my last haircut had been more than five months prior, I was already well on my way, and the Pantene Beautiful Lengths hair donation program required only eight inches of hair for donations.
I scheduled my first haircut in nearly 18 months for the morning of Saturday, April 7, one week before I left to run the 2012 Boston. About two weeks before I was to donate my hair, Friday, March 23, my big sister, Lily, one of my best friends and most dedicated supporters, was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. Luckily, she caught it early and acted quickly and aggressively.
She got a mastectomy the morning of Monday, April 2, and her surgeon was able to remove the entire tumor. Though Lily’s fight had only just begun, the good news of the successful surgery put our family in high spirits. But not all the news was good. Lily is tough, tougher than tough—she is honestly one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. She has remained calmer and more poised through her struggle with cancer than anyone around her. But she broke down crying when she told me that she would not be able to join our mom and me in Boston for the marathon. We both did.
My job has afforded me contact with just about every journalist and news source in Northern Nevada—that, combined with Lily’s insistence that I take full advantage of her diagnosis to bolster donations and awareness, resulted in a flood of media attention for my haircut and our family’s ongoing fight against cancer. Four days after her surgery, my sister, a very private person, was on the evening news talking about her cancer and my running and work for the ACS, and the following morning, she was at the salon taking photos of mom cutting off the first chunk of my hair.
It’s important to remember what you’re running for during the hardest miles of a marathon, the miles when your legs beg you to stop, your lungs are on the verge of collapsing, and your pores have stopped producing sweat. With temperatures climbing toward 90 degrees (the official high on April 16 in Boston was 87) and humidity hanging at a muggy 40 to 60 percent, the hardest miles in this year’s Boston Marathon were more or less every last one until 26.2.
While my newly cut hair spared me the added warmth of my former locks, the race was beyond brutal and I had to dig deeper than I ever thought I could just to keep moving forward. Step after step, I reminded myself—often aloud—that this was for Lily, for everyone who was fighting cancer. I thought about the outpouring of support our family had received from friends and our entire community in the weeks before the race.
Mostly, I thought about Lily’s tearful apology when she told me she couldn’t come to Boston this year and the somber goodbye when she dropped our mom and me off at the airport in Reno. These thoughts carried me through the hardest race I’ve ever run, a race that reminded me that even the most difficult marathon pales in comparison to the challenges faced by Lily and others fighting cancer. Raising awareness and donations, running thousands of miles each year, and cutting off a head of hair that I was really starting to like all seems pretty easy when I stop to think about it.
WORTH A CLICK
See some of the regional news coverage Charlie’s donation and his family’s fight against cancer garnered:
“Multi-Marathoner Cuts His Mane to Fight Cancer,” CBS Sacramento
“Running for a Better Future,”
“Johnston runs for mom and sis,”
Charlie is a frequent contributor to The San Francisco Marathon’s blog.
Read his posts here.