Run for Your Life: Leaving Cancer in the Dust

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update: Watch Dave’s story on WGNtv.com

Legend has it that the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran the first marathon more than 2,500 years ago to tell the people of Athens that their soldiers had triumphed over the invading Persians. He sped from the battlefield to Athens without stopping, burst into the assembly hall, announced “we have wοn,” then collapsed and died.

Compared to Dave Hicks, former vice president of pharmacy and laboratory services at the University of Chicago Medicine, the much younger Pheidippides had it easy.

Hicks is 63 years old. Two years ago he had surgery at UCM for prostate cancer. In April, 2015, he had a recurrence. That meant a marathon of treatment: three months of hormonal therapy followed by eight consecutive weeks—Monday through Friday—of highly focused radiation therapy to the prostate bed and pelvis. This process can cause fatigue, plus bowel and bladder problems.

Remarkably, that did not dissuade him from paying the entrance fee and training for the Chicago marathon, October 11.

“So far it’s going fine,” he said in late August. “I’m a little more tired. I’ve had some hot flashes and sleep disturbances. I may ultimately have to walk part of the race. But with just a few weeks left to go, it still looks doable. My hormone and radiation therapy have not, so far—and I’m almost done—been a problem.”

Marathon man, Dave Hicks, about to receive radiation therapy for prostate cancer

Marathon man, Dave Hicks, about to receive radiation therapy for prostate cancer. Photo by John Easton.

He has certain advantages over Pheidippides. Hicks has already survived three marathons and knows how to pace himself. He was a cancer society charity runner for his first race in 2001, at the comparatively young age of 49, and again in 2003, finishing both in just under five hours.

But his cancer-related marathons became more personal two years ago. After his initial cancer diagnosis in 2013 and surgical removal of his prostate, Hicks began training. He ran the 26.2-mile race, at age 61, in less than 4.5 hours, averaging a little over ten minutes a mile, faster than his first marathon 12 years earlier.

He used the event to raise funds for the American Cancer Society’s “Making a Difference” campaign. And he persuaded his daughter, Stephanie, then 35, to raise funds and run with him. They crossed the finish line together and collected more than $12,000 in donations for the cancer society.

This time Team Hicks has also included his wife, Julie, their son Tom and Stephanie’s husband Geoff. Their original goal was to raise $15,000. By early September they had pulled in more than $16,000 and had upped the goal to $20,000.

Hicks, 2013

“Dr. Liauw hasn’t had a patient try to do triathlons and a marathon during hormonal therapy and radiation, so he has been hugely supportive, while monitoring me closely,” Hicks said.

Even radiation treatments involve training for Hicks. Most days, depending on the weather, he rides his bike from Lake Point Tower to the medical center, a round trip of about 18 miles.

This appears to have boosted his cycling speed. While training for the marathon, Hicks and his wife participated in the Chicago Sprint Triathlon, in August. He did the 15-mile bike ride in 50 minutes, averaging almost 18 miles an hour, followed by a 30 minute 5K run. He was not so happy with his swim time for 750 meters, but he blames that on changing his stroke—a gradual process initiated by a swim coach—not his cancer care.

“I’m really impressed with Dave,” said his physician, Stanley Liauw, MD, associate professor of radiation and cellular oncology at the University of Chicago Medicine. “His overall fitness and consistent activity level will make a difference. His exercise will help mitigate treatment-related fatigue. It’s also great for his attitude. He’s an inspiration, for me and for other patients and he’s raising an impressive amount of money to go towards cancer research.”

“Training and fundraising for the marathon helps me personally during a challenging time,” Hicks said. “It helps me to find some good in my cancer condition.  And maybe I can be an inspiration to other charity runners and cancer patients.”

“As a strong triathlete himself,” he added, “Dr. Liauw has been very helpful and a huge supporter for my attempt to do this.”

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Photo by John Easton

Hicks still has tough days. Training for, and running, a marathon is a solitary pursuit. Every runner ultimately competes against himself.

On August 31, for example, Hick’s training scheduled called for an 18-mile run. He hit the Lakeshore trail at 5:45 a.m., with six pounds of Gatorade in his backpack. By 8 a.m., the temperature was 84 degrees, with no wind. It only got worse.

“It was hot, and humid, but I was doing OK,” Hicks wrote in an email. He maintained an 11:20-mile pace for the first 16 miles, “but with the heat I lost a lot of water, almost 5 pounds. I had to walk the last two miles.”

But there’s a bright side. “Those long, hot August runs are great training,” Hicks said. “They have always been tougher for me than the marathon.”

October brings cooler weather and Hicks insists he runs best when it’s in the mid-30s. He finished his final radiation treatment on October 1. Plus, marathon runners taper off, recover and fuel up during the final pre-race weeks.

“It helps a lot to start on fresh legs,” he said.  Perhaps the attitude reflected on his jersey, “Kicking Cancer’s ….” helps too.

Learn more about prostate cancer care at the University of Chicago Medicine.

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