Mar 28, 2013

Still Running from Cancer

It’s been a few weeks since I finished the Atacama Crossing so this post is obviously overdue. 

But I wanted to wait, because in many respects I hadn't quite finished the journey yet.

The day before I left to fly out to Chile I met with my Oncologist. She said that there were some concerns about a recent blood test I’d done and the results showed that my CEA levels—one of their cancer markers—had risen pretty dramatically. She suggested that it could be an indication that cancer had returned. Mostly it meant I needed to go through more testing, including a PET scan, as soon as possible so we could know for sure.

I’m not going to lie… I was pretty freaked out… Maybe even VERY freaked out. I walked out of the cancer clinic riding an emotional roller coaster; my mind was all over the place. And for a few seconds I actually thought about not going to Chile.

But I did what I've so often done in my life; I put on my “stubborn” hat. I decided the freaking scan could wait until I got home, because I had 250km of desert to cross! In the grand scheme of things, waiting another few weeks for testing probably wouldn't make too much difference—and luckily the doctor agreed with me.

So off I went. Uncertain about what I was heading into, and even more uncertain about what was in store for me when I got home. One thing I did know, however, was that a week in the desert would sort out my head, and put things into perspective, one way or another.

The Atacama Desert is easily one of the most remarkable places on earth. It is beautifully rugged, almost to the point of being surreal. Trying to explain what it’s like to run across it is a bit anti-climatic, and doesn't give it the justice it deserves. But I will say the combination of endless coral-like salt flats, sand dunes, river cannons, and other general ass-kicking terrain, made for one of the most challenging adventures of my life.

I just tried to soak it all in. Day one of the race was a quick but brutal reminder of exactly that... Slow the hell down and take a look around you!  The altitude, the landscape, and what was weighing on my mind the most—do I have cancer again?—made my 8kg backpack feel like it weighed a hundred times more.

That’s exactly what I did. I slowed down, took some time to look around, to think, to breathe, and to enjoy the moment. It was the right decision. What I experienced from then on was absolutely beautiful, fulfilling, and life altering.

It also helped that the other competitors were amazing—and they inspired me every day. The race organizers, doctors and volunteers were so encouraging and helpful. These events are made that much more special by the people involved. And I did form a very special bond with the people in my tent. They helped me in a way that I don’t think I’ll even be able to fully thank them for—they were exactly what my soul needed. In particular my friend Matt—we met in the Gobi Desert back in 2011—because we spent so much time out on the course together; including almost the entire long stage (76km). It’s a day I’ll never forget, because it was so therapeutic for me. At that point in time it was probably the most beneficial place on earth I could be.

And believe it or not, by the end of the race I was actually feeling stronger and better than I had at the start. My mind was in a much better place, and I’d decided that I was ready for whatever life wanted to throw at me.

But then I got home.

I think there’s often a letdown after adventures of this nature. You invest so much time and energy into them and when it’s over, after the adrenaline high wears off, there’s almost a sense of loss. It’s a bitter sweet feeling.

Plus, I had other things to worry about. Like a PET scan. The scan itself is not a big deal; it just means not eating for a few hours and another trip to a hospital. The worst part is waiting for the results, which take another week to get.

So that’s where I was this morning... Meeting with my Oncologist again—to get the results from last week’s scan.

The first words out of her mouth were… “There’s no sign of cancer.”


I still have to do some a bit more testing over the next few weeks just to be sure. And I’ll have to visit her again sooner than planned, but it’s the best news I could have received today. I'm happy, I'm relieved, and I'm grateful.

And I finally feel like my Atacama Crossing 2013 is over.

Photos from Racing the Planet
by Shaun Boyte