This morning, the Dallas Morning News published an article about my seven year battle with leukemia and pursuit of a half-marathon in 2013. Thanks to Leslie Barker for writing a wonderful story and to Catherine Cuellar for the introduction!
It’s always surreal to visit my story from the outside looking in. Like most people, I tend to forget the adversity I’ve overcome in the past. Typically, that’s a good thing. Nobody wants to focus on hardships, mental fatigue, or the low points in life. But if there were no stories on perseverance, hope wouldn’t exist.
For the young guy or girl who might struggle with their cancer diagnosis like I did, it’s important that someone is honest about their missteps and the process to overcome them. The bible taught me this. If it weren’t for stories of redemption, intercession, and perseverance, it’s likely that my worldview would be different. Perhaps I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It’s likely I wouldn’t have embraced the circumstances, lessons, and perspectives I now do. Maybe paying it forward wouldn’t be of any significance to me.
Now, every time I write, I think about the 24 year old me. I have to reach him, because I know there are thousands of people in the US like him. I won’t reach everyone, but if I can change one life, then my experiences are worth it. That’s why I do this.
Anyway, enough of me rambling. Here’s the story!
Training for a race is well within Justin Ozuna’s control — unlike leukemia
Justin Ozuna of Plano will tell you he’s not a runner, and he’ll beam that white-toothed smile as he says the words. But with every step away from his leukemia diagnosis — on the treadmill, on the streets of Fort Worth for his first 5K, eventually on the Dallas Half Marathon route come December — he’s becoming one.
He decided to start running because for seven years, he didn’t have a lot of choices. Decisions he did make bordered more on desperation than desire: He dropped out of school. He stopped taking his meds because he couldn’t afford them. He worked jobs he didn’t like because they offered health insurance. As he later wrote:
It was easier to pay for my medicine every third paycheck as opposed to every second. I felt ashamed, guilty and embarrassed, but it gave me a lot of freedom. … It’s like walking into the gym and trying to lift a weight you’ve never lifted before, just to impress the prettiest girl in the room. Without a spotter, or someone to help you lift the weight, it will soon come crashing down. Nobody is capable of lifting the weight of cancer on their own.
“There was a seven-year period where everything was paused,” says Justin, 31. “Early on, I was like, ‘I’m not going to live long,’ and I gave up.”
But giving up just wasn’t Justin. Fighting was, and the ensuing battle, he later wrote for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s cancerwise.org blog quoted above (one of his three blog sites excerpted here), “was like running a mental marathon. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go with mentally.”
So when Oncor, where he now is contentedly employed, asked employees to state a goal for 2013, Justin knew almost immediately: running a half-marathon.
“When you’re going through cancer, you have no control,” says Justin, whose disease has been in remission since October. “They tell you this is what you have and where you’ll go and what you’ll do. Cancer is all-absorbing, man. It affects your goals, the job you have to have, the decisions you make. It’s tough. With training, I have a choice. I’m choosing to empower myself.
“Nobody asked, ‘Hey, do you want to have leukemia or go through chemical trials that will affect every part of your body?’ I get to say, ‘I’m going to train. I’m going to run.’”
When deciding his goal distance, time was a major factor, he says. He’s in college again. He works. He does volunteer work with young cancer patients. He contributes to three blogs and is starting a fourth.
“No way could I give that much time to training for a full marathon,” he says. “I didn’t want to do a 10K. There’s just something about a half — it has the word ‘marathon’ in it. It gets me to thinking about my experience.”
I stopped believing life was a sprint. A diagnosis of leukemia didn’t necessarily mean I was going to live a shortened life. It simply meant I had to run smarter, more effectively, and with purpose. I knew as soon as I let go of that truth, I would lose. And so I pressed forward. I decided to do whatever I could to cross the finish line with determination.
A half-marathon, he says, “is not easy, and it represents what I went through. This is what I want to accomplish. Not finishing it is not an option. Not training is not an option.”
Lucy Richardson is communications specialist for M.D. Anderson in Houston. She read of Justin’s cancer experience on his personal blog, theozunaverse.com, and was so taken by his eloquence that she asked him to blog for the hospital.
“In his first post, he describes the metaphor of cancer patients,” she says. “You put on a pair of headphones and you’re living a whole new life and music you never would have.”
The moment you hang up the phone or walk out of the doctor’s office after receiving your diagnosis, it’s as if God reaches down and gives you a pair of headphones that radically changes the environment … as a cancer patient, you don’t have the ability to take off your headphones. In most cases, you don’t even have the option to choose the music that you’re listening to.”
“There are not a lot of young people who are so open about their cancer and experience,” says Richardson, adding that her office can hardly wait to read Justin’s latest post. “He’s not afraid to tackle the tough issues.” Plus, “he’s such a brilliant writer. He’s taught me so much about the patient experience.”
In a post about proposing to his girlfriend, Katie Navarte, whom he’ll marry on Oct. 26, Justin wrote about feeling guilty for knowing what his — and thus their — future holds.
Although I knew Katie was emotionally invested in our relationship, the significance of an engagement and eventual marriage meant that every result from every piece of bone marrow taken from my body moving forward would be reflected in every tear of sadness or joy that falls down her cheek. In an irrational way, I feel responsible for that.
“I never would have thought about that,” Richardson says.
Justin says he is open about his experience, “but I’m not cancer.”
“Cancer is bad,” he says. “But I’ve gotten a new perspective I wouldn’t have seen before: Stop and pay attention. If you don’t, you lose out on so much.”
He remembers the last time he walked out the doors of M.D. Anderson. “For a brief moment — it seems silly — but I thought I’d miss the place I was. Sure enough, I did.”
He’s talking about missing the bricks and mortar place he was treated, yes. He’s also talking about the place he was emotionally and mentally.
“When you go through cancer, the world stops,” he says. “But there’s certainly some joy. The challenge is getting back to speed and not forgetting. It was all awesome.”
He pauses a second before continuing. “That sounds cheesy now. But I don’t want to go through this for nothing. You never think you can go through something until you do. If you’d told me after my diagnosis that I’d spend the next seven years trying to beat something, I don’t know if I’d have thought I could do it.
“You have to pay attention. Life is hard enough not to go through cancer. I’m refocusing on what’s important, on my health.”
He’s pretty much set his goal race as the half portion of the Dallas Marathon in December. These days, he’s running three miles three or four times a week — initially on a treadmill, but he’s changed his workout venue to outdoors after running Cowtown, his first 5K, in late February.
I’ll be number 25330 on race day, but number 1 in your hearts. See you at the finish line.
Read more about Justin on theozunaverse.com; cancerwise.org; and powermylifetx.com.