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What cancer has taught me: life is a marathon

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JustinOzuna_marathon.JPGBy Justin Ozuna

Justin Ozuna lives in Dallas and was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in January 2006. He is a Texas State Representative and Dallas/Fort Worth facilitator for The National CML Society. His mission is to capture the ups and downs of a young adult living with cancer and to serve people through humor, encouragement, hope and adversity at his blog, theozunaverse.com.

I'm not much of a runner. My only experience running a timed event was during a junior high track meet. I ran the equivalent of one lap, or 400 meters. It didn't turn out so well. I was responsible for the last leg of a 1600 meter relay so by the time I was passed the baton, the competition was three-fourths of a lap ahead of me. I didn't have a chance.

Early in my fight with leukemia, I felt much the same way. I was 25 years old, struggling to get ahead. It felt like life was passing me by. I was anxious for the baton, for a chance to sprint, because catching up with the world around me was the only thing I knew to do. Everything else, I figured, would take care of itself.

When I was younger, it was extremely difficult to wrap my mind around the big picture. I grew up in an excessive culture defined by immediacy and indulgence, where patience is considered weakness and investments are often vilified. To rely on endurance to get me through the trials and tribulations of life was a tough lesson to learn.

Race with a purpose

Four years after my diagnosis, I moved to Dallas and discovered I was growing resistant to Gleevec, a first-line medication. I learned of a mutation called t315i, which would prevent any known FDA-approved medication from working. It was at that moment I started to see things differently. I realized the futility of my self-centered approach to life and reinvigorated my efforts to run the race against cancer with a purpose.

I stopped believing life was a sprint. A diagnosis of leukemia didn't necessarily mean I was going to live a shortened life, it simply meant I had to run smarter, more effectively, and with purpose. I knew as soon as I let go of that truth, I would lose. And so I pressed forward. I decided to do whatever I could to cross the finish line with determination.


With a renewed mind, I came to MD Anderson to begin treatment. My oncologist had another mutation test performed to validate the sometimes-elusive diagnosis of t315i. The test came back negative and I began treatment on a second-line drug called Sprycel. The heaviness of being told I didn't have many options was counterbalanced by a new hope.

A new peak leads the way for a new valley
As renewed as my efforts were, six months later I was told my bone marrow began releasing immature white blood cells back into my bloodstream again. Sprycel was no longer working. Another mutation test revealed an obvious t315i mutation diagnosis. There was no reason to second guess anymore. I found that no amount of optimism could buffer unpredictability.

Soon after, I began a clinical trial at MD Anderson. Two weeks into the protocol, the trial drug caused an increase in eye pressure, which eventually led to partial vision impairment in my right eye. My oncologist removed me from the trial and applied for compassionate use of the t315i effective drug, Ponatinib, a clinical trial that was closed to new patients at the time I arrived in Houston. Ponatinib is my last hope to avoid a bone marrow transplant.

Dedication to finish
Fred Lebow, New York City Marathon co-founder once said, "The marathon is a charismatic event. It has everything. It has drama. It has competition. It has camaraderie. It has heroism. Every jogger can't dream of being an Olympic champion, but he can dream of finishing a marathon."

The same could be said about our fight with cancer.

Instead of winning, we simply hope to overcome. Instead of finishing, we yearn to see our children and grandchildren grow up. The aspiration to live long, inspired, productive lives supplants heroism.

I wasn't always sure if a long life was possible for me. Much like my race in junior high, I was focused on the short term, on catching up with everyone else. Had I continued to run my race against cancer in the same way, I might not have finished at all.

When life kept slipping away and bad news lingered, I learned to see the big picture, to not allow bad news to crush me and to fully appreciate the life I live. Everything stopped becoming so immediate. The world slowed down and the clarity of truth and importance were made known.

Life isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. I had to learn that the hard way. Now, I can fight my cancer with grace, perseverance and a dedication to cross the finish line.

Read more posts by Justin Ozuna.

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