Health & Family

How she went from leukemia diagnosis to half-marathons

Susannah Harris has her sights set on running a full marathon.
Susannah Harris has her sights set on running a full marathon. Courtesy of Susannah Harris

Susannah Harris went from leukemia patient to half-marathon runner.

Exercise and fitness might have saved her life, and it’s also what brought her back to feeling like herself again. After struggling to get through her usual workouts, the 47-year-old realized she needed to see a doctor. She was ultimately diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. After a year of trying to find the right treatment with the fewest side effects and moving to Charlotte to be near family for support, Harris reached remission and was ready to get moving again.

She joined the Cancer Wellness Program, which is in partnership with the Levine Cancer Institute and the Charlotte YMCA. Encouraged by staff there, she ran the ACC Fan 5K in December and kept going. She ran her first half-marathon in March at the Corporate Cup and another at Charlotte RaceFest in April, with her 10-year-old niece running alongside for the last three miles each time. Now Harris has her sights set on running her first marathon at Charlotte’s Thunder Road Marathon Nov. 14.

It’s been more than two years since her diagnosis, and while Harris will always have to take daily medication, she has reached her goal of “climbing my way back to being my full self.” She is heading back to work soon in a new job as a grant manager with the nonprofit City Year.

Here is her story in her own words.

The challenge

“I set my goals for the races because I’m pretty competitive, and in the time when they were working on finding a treatment that didn’t give me terrible side effects, I felt I hadn’t accomplished anything. I was on disability. I felt so passive, people taking my blood. Once I got back into the exercise I wanted to see progress and measure it, and I wanted to be timed and I wanted to be out with healthy people and to set goals. So I decided to do more races then…

“After Dr. (Edward) Copelan helped me get on the right medicine, I finally felt like I wanted to climb my way back to being my full self. That’s why the Cancer Wellness Program was so great because yes I was in remission, and finally the terrible side effects and all of the limitations that I had had with that were gone, but I felt like I was starting at the bottom of a mountain. I needed to work my way back to basic health and wellness, and then I wanted to get back to my own personal goals for my health. I wanted to just feel like me again.”

How I did it

“They do a pretest as you start (the Cancer Wellness Program), so they can measure your progress through the 12 weeks but also to know what they’re dealing with from a medical standpoint. I knew I was feeling better because as I was doing pretest, the person doing the test kept saying, “Don’t overdo, just take it easy.” People have been saying that to me my whole life.

“Gradually I started walking and I would sit in a chair and do some stretching. (Then it was) stretching with bands and we lifted some small weights, easing into some exercise. A couple of weeks in, I was ramping up the incline on the treadmill when I was walking. Then I started to amp up the speed as well.

“Soon I was able to jog for 15 minutes on an incline. Then I started doing more. It started to come back slowly. My new normal is I’m not going to be back where I was as far as speed and stamina, but I’m back to a good level….

“I wish everybody who was either being treated or considers themselves a survivor had access to that kind of program that lets people come back at the right speed for them with the security of medical professionals being around if there are any issues. You don’t have to go it alone at a gym, which can be intimidating for some people. It’s such a great group.”

The result

“I felt like I had re-entered healthy people land with this sea of people at the starting line pushing off (in the half-marathon). I didn’t stop. I kept running. I did better than what my goal was for the first one. I really didn’t know what to expect. It was such a great feeling.”

What she learned

“It felt like I was making my way back professionally and physically, and I just didn’t feel so defeated emotionally. It’s scary with a diagnosis – and everybody who’s had cancer knows this, and it might sound dopey – but you think, ‘My gosh, what else is out there coming down the pike that I didn’t know to be afraid of?’ It opens you up to a lot of other worries and makes you feel really vulnerable. So the whole experience has been helping with my patience and thinking about being resilient and keeping going….

“There were some times that were really depressing. I’m a little bit of a cynical person anyway. This is one of those reminders, you can ride through this and keep going. There’s some evidence that things can be half-full even when it’s hard to see.”

Your story?

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