I Was Diagnosed With Cancer, but Walking Helped Me Through It

“It’s about the people next to you, whether they’re physically next to you or virtually.”

joseph emas how walking helped me overcome my cancer diagnosis
Joseph Emas

I started running in my mid 20s, but even back then, I saw how powerful walking was—especially when people walked together. I began my running journey after I found myself making a bet to complete a 20k run at a local zoo, with a bit of a cocky, “I can do anything” attitude. For the first mile I kept up with the pack—but further on, I was thinking, oh my goodness what did I get myself into. This is pure torture.

I had about three kilometers to go and found myself hoping that they would just release the zoo animals to finish me off because I had absolutely nothing left. And then all of a sudden a number of people who had already finished came running back to me. I was walking, because at that point running was well behind me, and these fellow runners joined me, and walked and talked with me until we got to the finish line. That camaraderie, that spirit, it was just so enticing to me.

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After that first grueling, yet inspiring race, I kept running, and running is what introduced me to the sport of walking. I ran my first marathon in 1980, and since then have completed forty five marathons. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of finishing first in my age group, but I’ve also been at the very back. I have many medals and t-shirts collected over the years, but it’s all about the people I’ve met along the way.

I now practice a combination of walking and running, and have been training under the Olympic runner Jeff Galloway’s walk/run method for well over two decades. Sometimes people will ask “is a walker really an athlete” and my answer is always “yes.” If you are moving forward, you are an athlete.

What I learned from my very first race is that walking really is a social sport. Which is why I am such an avid user of the Charge app. With Charge, you actually feel like you’re walking or running with other people, because in a sense, you are. It helps keep that spirit alive, and gives you that running and walking community. And for me that really is what it’s all about. It’s about the people next to you, whether they’re physically next to you or virtually, and the memories you make, the friendships you make.

If you are moving forward, you are an athlete.

That made a huge difference for me when I had cancer. Back in 2012, I had a large tumor removed. I underwent a year of radiation, and actually ran a marathon in the middle of treatment. But, one thing I knew was that at some point the cancer would reappear, even after radiation and surgery. Cancer is pretty brutal and it will come back. And it certainly did come back with a vengeance a year ago. My attitude in tackling the cancer was to be proactive.

I was put on a form of chemotherapy called ADT. It was pretty tough to get through those ten months. I would wake up every day and the only way to describe the feeling was that it felt like getting run over by a Mack truck. I really just wanted to stay in bed and not do anything. But I would get up, get dressed, get something in my system, and I would get up and go run that day if I had the strength, and if I didn’t I would walk. I would make a point of getting out every day, because even though the first kilometer or two were difficult, by the end I felt better. It didn’t make all of the pain go away and be wonderful again, but I knew by the end of it I would feel better. It was my way of battling it.

I will never forget my last formal day of chemotherapy on October 13, 2021. It makes my eyes tear up thinking about it. I attended a Charge class that evening, and I had mentioned to coach Christine that I would be there. When I came on, she changed the nature of the class from a standard run/walk format to a celebration. Two other instructors came on as well and played music selections I liked. Different runners, some I knew and some I didn’t, jumped on to the app to say congratulations. It was incredibly special because that was the day that I survived the cancer, and they were all there to share it with.

It was an incredible experience I will never forget. And it tells you what the nature of the walking community is like: that we are family. We might not all be together but we all share the same camaraderie, the same support. It’s a wonderful thing to have and allows you to make lifetime memories with people.

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