Unconditionally Her’s Cindy Chafin chatted with Colleen Johnson – also known as Granny Ruth Hogg – to discuss her amazing story of survivorship and triumph.   To say this lady is an inspiration is a tremendous understatement. Read more about her cancer diagnosis, what inspires her, and her love of racing.

 Unconditionally Her:  Tell us a little about your cancer diagnosis.

CJ:  I was diagnosed with an unusually aggressive and deeply invasive form of endometrial cancer in autumn 2012. My surgeon removed a HUGE 2-pound tumor from my abdomen. It was the approximate size of a cantaloupe, deeply invasive, yet – fortunately – somehow it remained locally contained.The final diagnosis was stage 2, grade 3 endometrial cancer with greater than 50% myometrial invasion. In other words, it was deemed a HIGH RISK endometrial cancer.

 Because of the highly aggressive nature of the cancer cells, the huge size of the tumor, and the fact that it was so deeply invasive — they only gave me a 20% chance of surviving 5 years. Thing is, I did NOT want to die! So, I went to the internet, to see if there was more I could do for myself, to increase the odds of my beating this cancer. I soon found a lot of published research that strongly suggested that (with many adult onset cancers, including – but not limited to – my kind of cancer) people who lost weight, ate a healthy diet, and engaged in regular, vigorous exercise might be able to delay the return of even highly aggressive cancers like mine.

 At my peak, I weighed 242 pounds. I was obese. Honestly, I thought the notion seemed too good to be true — lose a lot of weight, engage in regular and vigorous exercise — and maybe I could significantly delay the return of my cancer? That sounded pretty far-fetched to me back in the winter of 2013, but a 20% chance of survival didn’t offer me much hope, either. So, I began to think: WHY NOT try to lose weight, and adopt a regular and vigorous exercise program?  What did I have to lose, other than some unwanted and unloved rolls of fat?

 I met with my cancer center’s nutritionist, and she recommended a 1500 calorie diet plan.  And I got with a physical therapist (since I’d been a couch potato for decades and was badly out of shape). My PT helped me develop a safe and effective exercise plan that, in conjunction with my 1500 calorie diet, would allow me to both loose fat and build muscle at the same time. It was slow — it took about a year — but I eventually worked my way down to the 140-145-pound range.

 With regular exercise I gradually built my physical fitness level to the point where I could run/walk my first 5K (the Teal for a Cure 5K for Ovarian Cancer Awareness, Sept 21, 2013). That was 7 months after I completed radiation therapy.  5 months after that first 5K (3.1-mile race), I ran/walked my first full marathon (26.2-mile foot race) – the Shelby Forest Loop Marathon in Millington, TN Feb 26, 2014.

 I have kept the weight off for 4 years now. Keeping the weight off long term is as difficult as losing it was. Best yet, I am now 5 ½ years cancer free!

 Unconditionally Her:  Wow, Colleen!   Congratulations on being cancer-free! And losing the weight was NOT an easy accomplishment it sounds like. Way to go for doing it and doing it well!  Not many people can go from being a couch potato to participating in a 5K – AND do it after completing radiation therapy?! You are amazing!

 The research suggests that you need to keep your weight down, and engage in regular, vigorous exercise, in order to have the best chance of keeping your cancer from coming back. But you could do ANY kind of vigorous exercise to meet that goal. Why do you choose racing as your chosen method of getting that exercise done?

CJ:  OK, reality check here: I am NOT one of these people who enjoys exercise for the sake of exercise. In my book, the word “exercise” is an 8-letter word — which makes it twice as bad as a 4 letter word.
The honest truth is that IF I had to face doing “exercise” five days a week, week in and week out, for years at a time — I don’t think I could stick with it for very long. I’d gradually quit doing the high level of physical work that I need to do, if I am going to use the exercise as a tool, in the deliberate attempt to delay the return of my cancer. I would gradually return to the sedentary, obese self that I used to be.

I’m sure that you know — many people lose weight, but most people gain it right back again within a year or two. The challenge is more than just losing the weight initially. It is equally challenging to KEEP the weight off, after you lose it!  So, I had to figure out a way to keep myself motivated over the long term. Not just the temporary motivation that comes out of fear of the cancer killing me, but a more permanent motivation that will keep me active for many years to come.

 One thing I discovered early on, is that crossing finish lines at these community runs could actually be fun!  Even if you are the last person to cross the finish line (and yes, I have been, on occasion), there will always be somebody there to cheer you on.  And that makes it all worthwhile! The free banana, of course, is an extra bonus!    But here’s the thing, Cindy: Every person who crosses that finish line is a WINNER!

 At the races, they might recognize the fastest runners – and that does not always include me. But I WIN every time I cross a finish line. In fact, I WIN every morning that I wake up, feeling healthy, happy, sassy — and cancer free! I run races almost every weekend, because that keeps me excited. It keeps me motivated. And because I ALWAYS have another race to run, I always seem to have reason to head out to the gym and workout.

 I hate exercise just for the sake of exercise — but I am more than willing to work long and hard in the gym or in the swimming pool — day after day after day — to try and run my next race just a little bit faster.  Or to get myself fit enough to do a really long race and challenging race — like the 100-mile race I will do Labor Day weekend. I will actually train for MONTHS to get myself in good enough shape to do that one race.   Honestly, it’s a mental thing. The difference isn’t found in what specific activity — or the level of the activity — that I am engaged in at any given moment, as I work out in the gym. It’s a psychological trick that I play on my own self. In my own mind’s eye, I am NOT doing “exercise” when I work out. I’m TRAINING for my next race.  For me, that little mental trick makes a huge difference.

Collen standing in front of the treatment bell. “When folks are finished with their treatments, they go up to the roof and ring this treatment bell, which has come to symbolize (a hopeful) victory over their cancer. I never finish my “running therapy” treatment, so you do not see me actually ringing the bell. But I stand there by it, as I AM currently victorious over my cancer.”

 I do NOT like exercise. I never will. But I have no problem with training for upcoming races.Honestly, Cindy, the Coke 10K is a great race to run. It would not be as popular as it is — across the entire southeastern region – if it were not. Unlike most races I do, the Coke 10K is not a community race — it is a REGIONAL race. In 2018, runners from 17 states came in to run that race. (In fact, I am one of those who cross state lines to do the race, as I live in Tennessee and the race is in Mississippi.)But as great as the Coke 10K is to run – and this is my third year running it – it is still only one of about 45 to 50 races that I will do in the calendar year 2018.

Unconditionally Her:  Wow.   You ARE a winner, Colleen. I am literally speechless.   Enjoying life to the fullest and a true WINNER.   The word “inspiration” doesn’t even begin to describe you!  Thank you so much for sharing these words. So many need to hear it whether they are dealing with cancer or any other of life’s difficult things that seem to get thrown at so many of us.   I would like to do a separate interview about the Coke 10K as I know there is some history there and a story that I think others might like to hear. We’ll do that in the near future!

As we wrap up this interview, I do have one other question. What has been the most “extraordinary” thing you have done through your cancer journey, and now, as a survivor?

CJ:  The Gold Standard Bearer award, as established and awarded by the Coca-Cola bottling company, is an action-oriented award.  What are the “extraordinary” things that I have done, that caused race officials to nominate me for the Gold Standard Bearer award?  They never answered that question, not directly.  But my best guess is that there are four things that I have done, which caught their attention.  They are:

Accomplishment #1:

Most fundamental of all, I made a complete and total transformation of my lifestyle. In the year following my cancer diagnosis, I deliberately lost about 100 pounds (the old-fashioned way, though calorie restriction and exercise), and radically transformed myself from a Couch Potato to a marathon runner.

In the process of transforming my lifestyle, I totally reversed my type 2 diabetes. This is significant because my mother DIED of complications due to her own type 2 diabetes when she was only a few years older than I currently am. Because of my radical lifestyle transformation, I am no longer following in my mother’s footsteps. In addition, my blood pressure is now within normal range.

Most important of all — I beat the odds! I was given a 20% of surviving 5 years with my cancer. That was 5 and ½ half years ago. Last time I checked, I was still alive — and kicking!

Today – five and 1/2 years after my cancer diagnosis – I’m healthy enough to run races every weekend.

I’m even healthy enough to commit to my THIRD 100-mile race in as many years, to promote endometrial cancer awareness (see below for more information on that).  I am 62 years old, and a cancer survivor. Yet I can honestly say that I feel better — healthier — than I felt when I was 40. Now, how many cancer survivors do you know who can say that, Cindy? And actually mean it?

Accomplishment #2:

I run races almost every weekend. AT this point, I have run 10 ultra-marathons, 10 full marathons, 33 half marathons, and at least 100 5Ks. But probably the most extraordinary races I have done are the two 100-mile races that I did.  Very few runners — not even runners younger and healthier than I am — will ever do a 100-mile race.  Runners KNOW how difficult it is to do a 100-mile race (which is why so few will ever attempt one).  Yet I – a 62-year old female cancer survivor – have done TWO 100 milers already, and am registered for my third one, which I will do Labor Day weekend 2018.

FYI, in the year 2016, I was one of only 7 ladies over the age of 60 — anywhere in the entire United States — who successfully completed a race of at least 100 miles during that calendar year. And I was the ONLY one of the seven known to be a cancer survivor!

Achievement #3:

In the fall of 2017, I teamed up with fundraising experts at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (the NCCN) to raise money to produce Patient Guidelines for newly diagnosed women with high risk or recurring uterine (endometrial) cancer. We used my 100-mile race to help generate interest in donating to the cause. At the end of the fundraising campaign, a total of $120,000 was raised.

The Patient Guidelines (which are currently being written up and will soon go to press) will offer the 63,000+ women newly diagnosed with endometrial cancer in a given year – a single, comprehensive, yet easy to understand source of information about their cancer and the treatment options available to them.

These patient guidelines will help ladies to make the best treatment decisions possible concerning their cancer during a very confusing and stressful time. No such guidelines were available for endometrial cancer, back when I needed information about my cancer in 2012 (though they were available for most other common types of cancer back then). And, believe me, I needed something like that very badly, when I had to make decisions concerning my own high risk endometrial cancer.

But that is about to change. The ladies who follow in my footsteps will have that resource available to them.  As far as I am concerned, that makes all the pain I suffered during my 100 mile ordeal during Hurricane Harvey worth it.

Achievement #4:

I am going into my 5th year as a volunteer coach with the Women Run/Walk Memphis training program, sponsored by the Memphis Runners Track Club. I help coach beginning runners. In that capacity, I literally run alongside women who are fighting many of the same health problems that I had to overcome just a few short years ago, in order to become a 5K runner (and later, a marathon runner). I run alongside ladies fighting obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, advancing age, and even cancer, when coaching these ladies.

I’m not a great runner (although I do try to be the best beginning runner’s coach that I can be).But what I am is living proof that a person is never too old to change to a healthier lifestyle — and maybe even gain back some of the health that they lost during years of less healthy living.

Unconditionally Her:  Colleen, do you wonder why I have this look of astonishment and bewilderment on my face?  I simply am in awe of you.  I don’t know how anyone could NOT be in awe of you and all that you have done and continue to do.    Any words of wisdom for others who are survivors of ANY life changing event, be it cancer, other illnesses, personal tragedy, or anything – about coming out of it as a survivor?

CJ:  A few weeks back, I saw somebody wearing a t shirt with a message that resonated with me, and I think is an appropriate answer for this question:

You will never know how strong you can be, until you have no choice but to be strong.

Unconditionally Her:  Any words of wisdom for those contemplating entering a 5K, but just are not sure?

CJ:  Don’t hesitate to do a race.  You don’t have to run the entire race. Run as much as you can, walk as much as you need to.  And while you are doing the race, take time to enjoy the process. Don’t worry about your time – the finish line will be waiting for you when you finally get there. Be careful out there but HAVE FUN!

Don’t worry about being the last one in. Every person who finishes the race is a winner – even the last person to cross the finish line!

Unconditionally Her:  Colleen, thank you for sharing not only your ongoing journey, but words of wisdom.  I almost feel like I could run a race now!  And certainly those words you shared can help anyone in the “race of life” with any of the challenges we might face.   I see several more interviews with Unconditionally Her in your future – if you will allow that opportunity! I think there is much more we can learn from Collen Johnson. Thank you for being who you are and such an inspiration to many!