A Living Streak
A patient recounts his journey undergoing treatment for lung cancer — and how it changed his outlook on life.
James Hiter Jr. is pictured with his German shepherd, Branko.
After 723 days of running every day with my German shepherd, Branko, I didn’t have time to be sick. But I was sick. I had just returned from a business trip out West and I felt awful. My family doctor diagnosed me with bronchitis and the flu and I needed antibiotics to get over it. He ordered a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia. While the X-ray didn’t show pneumonia, it did reveal a mass — about the size of a tennis ball.
As a lifelong never-smoker, I had never thought about having lung cancer. The 40 days that followed my diagnosis involved a great deal of information and preparation. We decided the best course of treatment was to remove the mass, which appeared to be contained to the lowest lobe of my right lung. A lobectomy was scheduled. The preparation for this serious surgery included updating legal documents, meeting with our financial advisor, talking with the human resources department at work, and having countless conversations with family, friends, and colleagues. I wondered if I would be able to continue running after surgery.
My running streak ended on day 763. My family joined me for what was an emotional but optimistic day. The day after my lobectomy, on what would have been running streak day 764, I learned a hard lesson: never-smokers can and do get lung cancer.
Several second opinions confirmed our belief that the surgery was curative. There was no need for additional treatment. We simply needed to do CT scans every six months to stay vigilant and monitor for potential recurrence.
During the year that followed my lobectomy, I ran intermittently but never restarted a running streak. In fact, I was happy to take a break from running. Five days short of my one-year cancerversary, a CT scan showed a recurrence. There were 13 new cysts. Two weeks later, a portion of my remaining lung was surgically removed for biopsy. It confirmed the doctor’s assumption: the cancer was back.
My chemotherapy infusions began about four weeks after the surgery. I had four rounds of carboplatin, Alimpta®, and KEYTRUDA® every 21 days. I was fit and healthy. My body tolerated the chemotherapy well.
My wife and I quickly collected second opinions from several nationally renowned cancer centers on the East Coast. The choice presented was either a pneumonectomy (removal of the entire right lung with the cysts) or maintenance chemotherapy for an indefinite length of time. After a lot of thought, prayer, and consultation, the decision was made to keep the lung and do the chemotherapy/immunotherapy.
Two weeks after the biopsy, the doctors gave their consent for me to try running again. That was the beginning of my current running streak. Those were some of the hardest but happiest runs of my life. To be back running was a joy — even though I was in pain. I was much slower than before — but I was able to run!
Fast forward to August 2019 — I hit day 764 for the first time ever. There was something special and symbolic about getting to and past that number.
Today, my running streak continues. While the runs of this streak have been more challenging than before, they have also been more appreciated. I realize what a privilege it is to be able to run. In the cancer survivorship journey, there is so much that you can’t control. I’ve found running gives me a little sense of being in control.
Running and finding a cure for lung cancer have a few things in common. Both take determination. You must decide it is a priority and act accordingly. Both can be tiring and require tenacity. Cancer researchers face hurdles, failures, and roadblocks every day. More than anything, both require an unrelenting need to keep moving forward.
James Hiter Jr. is a member of the ACR’s Lung Cancer 2.0 Steering Committee. He is the founder of Streak for a Cure — a patient advocacy group that aims to change the face of lung cancer one run at a time.