Gold Story: Fighting Cancer One Mile At A Time
“If you don’t keep the pace, we all lose our way.”
This statement from Joel’s high school band director has stuck with him over the years. He was a drummer, although he says he wasn’t very good at keeping tempo for the band.
But, now he thinks of this statement on a more philosophical level because in 2015 he was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer.
He says, “If people who have a great story don’t share it, someone else might lose their way.”
This is why Joel says that now he’s an open book with his story of cancer and running before and after his diagnosis. He wants to help other people who are also struggling to have hope and to keep going, even in the face of adversity.
Joel hasn’t always been a runner or even very athletic. He says he joined the drumline in high school so that he could get into the football games for free.
But then he married Amanda who studied exercise physiology and who ran half marathons and marathons, and Joel decided it looked like fun and he wanted to join his wife.
So, in 2009, Joel ran his first half marathon at Disneyland and then later in the year his first full marathon at CIM in Sacramento.
After that he ran recreationally and entered races every so often.
In 2010, his first daughter was born. But, he had also been noticing a growth in his right thigh. Because he now had a daughter, he was motivated to get it checked out and make sure everything was okay.
They lived in Fresno, so they drove to San Francisco to see an oncologist who said that it was fine and thought it was from an injury. They did remove the growth and then said he should have it checked out again in five years.
From 2010 to 2015, Joel says he wasn’t taking running too seriously, but then in the summer of 2015, they had their third child and in September was Joel’s 32nd birthday. He decided he wanted to do something big — he wanted to run his age in miles.
So, on his 32nd birthday Joel ran 32 miles on the Cherry Creek Trails in Denver, where he and his family were now living.
“I’m going to be the guy that runs his age in miles,” Joel thought after accomplishing this major goal in 2015.
But then, in November 2015, it had been five years and it was time to get a doctor to look at his leg again. He went to a new oncologist, in Denver this time, who told him that it was cancer, it had been misdiagnosed originally, and now it was stage 4 sarcoma in his leg, lungs, and liver.
This was a blow for Joel and his family, especially the fact that it was originally misdiagnosed and having it spread and get worse could have been avoided.
He went through seven or eight rounds of chemotherapy and pretty much stopped running or exercising all together at this point.
After the chemo he had lung surgery where they thought they would be able to take out all the cancer, but instead what they found was that his lungs were covered in thousands of microscopic tumors.
“I was so disappointed and deflated after that surgery,” Joel said. “It didn’t really occur to me that I could run again until my birthday came around again.”
He said his oncologist told him about a 5k benefit run that the American Sarcoma Foundation was putting on, which just so happened to be on his birthday.
So, instead of running 33 miles that year — his age in miles that he had decided the year before he wanted to do every birthday — he was running 3.1 miles.
All his friends came out to the 5k to support him with shirts and signs that said #bringbackthebeard (he had lost all his hair, beard, eyebrows during the chemo), and he says the race was so hard. He was numb on his right side and had a hard time breathing, but he did it.
This 5k race showed him that he could wear a number again, he could race again.
In 2017, Joel and his family decided to move back to Fresno, where they had family and friends and also to be closer to where all the good sarcoma research was happening on the West Coast.
Joel had also always wanted to be a teacher and his teaching credential was from California. By now the teaching environment had changed since they had lived there before and he was able to easily get a job back in Fresno as an elementary school teacher and football coach (which he thought was amusing, considering he was the guy that joined the drumline in high school to get into the games for free…).
He started teaching in 2017 and then that fall, he and his wife decided to run the Fresno Half Marathon – the first half marathon since his diagnosis. They were home again, back with friends and family. They had run this race before and it finally felt like they were back again.
But, Joel says he felt terrible running that race. And he thought, “Maybe this is just something I used to do.” He wasn’t sure that running was going to be a part of his life anymore and for a while he didn’t really run.
His cancer was still a part of his life. He was on a treatment that restricted the growth of the cancer and he was remaining stable. But, he’s also always looking into clinical trials and new research that’s happening and hoping something will eventually come along that will be able to help him.
Eventually, Joel’s wife Amanda encouraged him to look into running again, finding a race that he could do, something to strive for.
At the same time, one of Joel’s old bandmates and friends from college was also feeling like he needed something new to do. So, they decided together they should look for a marathon to run.
After looking at dates, they decided to run the 2019 San Francisco Marathon, because it was in the summer and would work well with Joel’s teaching schedule.
It was his friend Blaine’s first marathon and it would be Joel’s first full marathon since his diagnosis.
Amanda, Joel’s wife, became their coach and they started training in the spring of 2019.
He said it was tough training for the marathon, but it was also really good for him to focus on something besides the cancer and to have a new goal: run a full marathon again.
Joel says that coming to San Francisco again for the marathon felt strange. San Francisco was the place where he had originally been misdiagnosed in 2010. He says for a long time they avoided the city.
But they were finally coming back in July 2019, this time so Joel and his friend could run the San Francisco Marathon and Amanda and their kids could cheer them on from the sidelines.
The San Francisco Marathon helped make San Francisco an amazing place for Joel and his family again.
“It was a great day,” Joel said. “The whole experience is very San Francisco. It’s the best way to experience the city. Jumping into it was like facing my demons. Once we were there, it felt like, okay, this isn’t so bad. Not everyone’s going to give me cancer.”
And, he ran the race and he did well. He said, “I was expecting a walking pace, but it turned out that I did okay, and it was like, okay maybe this is something I can still do. Forget about cancer, forget about the surgery. Now I know I can do a marathon again.”
Joel said, “The people in the city were so great. All the block parties along the course. Someone even threw me a beer at mile 26. It was the exact day I needed as far as answering the questions, ‘Should I still I run?’ and ‘Can I fight cancer?’ The whole city embraced me and said, ‘Yeah, definitely! Hit it!’”
The 2019 San Francisco Marathon was Joel’s turning point. It showed him that he could keep running, even with cancer.
And then he and his wife had an opportunity to run the New York City Marathon in November 2019. They joined the Brave Like Gabe charity team, which supports rare cancer research. They were able to raise money for the team and Joel’s school and students even got involved and presented him with a large check from money the whole school helped to raise for his race.
Up next this year is the LA Marathon in March, where he’ll be running again as part of the Brave Like Gabe team.
And, he may even attempt to run his age in miles again this year in September — it would be 37 miles this year.
His oncologist has told him that all this running he’s doing is helping him, making his body stronger, and helping to fight the cancer too, so he’s going to keep running and keep fighting.
Because, as his high school band director told him, he knows that if he doesn’t keep the pace, if he doesn’t keep going, then we’ll all lose our way.
In honor and celebration of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games that will be happening at the same time as the 2020 San Francisco Marathon, we are telling runners’ Gold Stories.
For many, running in the Olympics may be a far off dream, but we know you have your own goals and achievements that we want to hear about and celebrate, because everyone can have their own version of a Gold Goal!