Austin Marathon plays a central role in Chris Hartley’s battle with prostate cancer
Chris Hartley was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 43. An avid runner, Chris delayed surgery long enough to run the 2018 Austin Marathon presented by Under Armour. He will participate in the 2019 Ascension Seton Austin Marathon presented by Under Armour, one year after his radical proctectomy. He hopes to raise awareness of the benefits to early PSA testing. Chris lives in Cedar Park, Texas, with his husband and two children. Follow his journey on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
An Athlete’s Perspective – Issue 14
by: Chris Hartley
On December 18, 2017, I sat hand in hand with my husband waiting to hear if I had prostate cancer. Time was up and we had to face whatever would come next. As we sat in the exam room together we joked about how it had all been a big mistake. After all, I was a very healthy 43-year-old. My elevated PSA level was just going to be “normal” for me or a result of physical activity aggravating my prostate. There was no way that I really had cancer. Right?
Before we get to my diagnosis, I can’t stress enough the importance for men to know their PSA baseline. Through this experience, I have learned that most doctors don’t test a man’s PSA level until the age of 50. This makes sense when you consider that the average age for a prostate cancer diagnosis is somewhere after 60. I only became aware of my elevated PSA level after going in for a testosterone therapy consultation. Regardless of age, the testosterone clinic that I visited verifies every potential patience’s PSA level because testosterone can be a “fuel” for cancer. The thing you need to know is that PSA testing is simple. It can be confirmed by running a simple blood test. If you are like me and get an annual physical, you can have your doctor add PSA level testing to your existing blood panels.
As it turns out, my biopsy confirmed that I do have prostate cancer, but I refuse to allow my diagnosis to define my story. I want my story to be about so much more than just my diagnosis. First, I would have to face the facts of what having cancer meant for me and make some difficult decisions quickly. The truth is I don’t remember much after the doctor came in and spoke the words out loud for the first time. If I am honest with myself, I knew my diagnosis before I ever arrived at that appointment. I had spent the past several months going through multiple tests and reading all about elevated PSA levels. I knew that I should have expected a PSA result of 2 or below. My final PSA reading before the biopsy was 13. Now I could not deny the truth anymore, the words were said out loud – “Your biopsy confirmed that you have prostate cancer.”
The doctor said all the right the things and went through all my options thoroughly, or so I am told. See I don’t remember much after the word “cancer.” I was overcome with fear, anger, confusion. At one point, I left my husband alone in the exam room as the doctor discussed what options were available to me. I walked right out of that room, past the receptionist, and straight out the front door to a bathroom in the attached medical building. All I could think about was getting as far away from that exam room and my diagnosis as I could. I locked myself in the bathroom stall, cried for a minute, and decided this was not how my story would end. I would not only beat cancer, but I would come out the other side stronger.
We left the doctor’s office that day with a lot to think through. I got the debrief from my husband over the next few days and we made a plan. When you considered my age, the various treatment side effects, and the mortality rates associated with each option the decision became clear. I would have my prostate removed and hope that the cancer had not spread. This option gave me the best chance of survival and I had to think of my husband and children. With two boys (ages 10 and 8), I had to fight with everything I had to survive.
Postponing surgery to run the Austin Marathon
With the decision of how I would fight this cancer behind me, I moved on to planning for the surgery. The doctors recommended that I have the surgery in January. They were concerned that I ran the risk of the cancer breaching the prostate due to my elevated PSA level. We talked through the risks and I decided that I would postpone my surgery a few weeks because I wanted to run the 2018 Austin Marathon on February 18, 2018. Running had brought balance to my life and truly love it. I don’t feel like myself if I go too long without lacing up my favorite running shoes and hitting the trail. At this point, I had put in the work to train for the Austin Marathon. I was more determined than ever to complete the race.
I crossed the 2018 Austin Marathon finish line in 3:54:29. Family and friends who had cheered me on met me at the finish. I was not sure what the rest of 2018 would bring, but I felt so strong at that moment. Running had done its job and put me in the right mindset to fight. I had my radical prostatectomy on February 21, 2018, at the age of 43. Just three days after completing the Austin Marathon. It was important for me to run this race at least one more time uncertain of what I would face on the other side of surgery.
The road to recovery
My surgery went well. I was released after a night in the surgical center. The next few weeks were a true test of body and spirit. At times I found myself battling depression. I often wondered if my life would forever be divided into before and after cancer. My comeback started with walks around the block. As soon as I was cleared by my doctor, I started running again. Feeling good about my progress, I signed up for the 2018 Cap 10K in April. On race day I did not feel so confident. The changes to my body felt foreign to me. I stopped at almost every porta potty along the course. I was uncomfortable running in an adult diaper. There were sharp pains in my hips after the first mile. I was at my lowest point in the race and questioned if I could even finish. Then I saw a friend walking the course. She walked with me for the remaining few miles and we finished together. I knew at that moment that with the help of my doctors, friends, and family I would find my way back.
One thing that running has taught me is that you have to take everything one step at a time. That’s exactly what I did. After my disappointing Cap 10K, I started running my daily 6-mile course at home. I also focused on my Kegel exercises and overcame my incontinence. Soon I felt stronger and tackled a 10-mile run. With every running goal achieved, I felt more like myself before cancer. With my new-found confidence, I decided to not only run the 2019 Austin Marathon, but I would run the 2018-2019 Austin Distance Challenge.
Back to running
I have since completed the first two races of the Austin Distance Challenge and continue to train for the 2019 Austin Marathon. The marathon was always intended to be a milestone in my recovery and celebration of being “cancer-free.” I learned in October that I can’t claim to be cancer-free just yet. Within the next month, I will begin radiation and hormone therapy to fight the cancer that remains.
As I continue this fight, I reflect more on what running has taught me over the years. The other day I went for a long run and hit the infamous “wall” around mile 8. It got me thinking about how through training I push that wall out further and further. By February, that “wall” should be pushed so far back that I don’t even feel it during the Austin Marathon. I thought to myself that is exactly what I have to do with my cancer treatment. When I found out that I still had cancer, I did not know if I could continue fighting. Then you take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other like I have so many times before. If I keep going, the race will be over. I will have proven to myself just how strong I can be when tested. I will cross that finish line this February and with any luck, it will be as a prostate cancer survivor.
An Athlete’s Perspective is a blog series of event and/or training experiences written firsthand by the athletes themselves. An Athlete’s Perspective is a completely unscripted and raw look into the mind and daily life of an athlete as they prepare for their next race. Readers will discover training regimens, eating tips, gear recommendations, and an uncut perspective into the lives of people like you and me.