With months to live, one Chattanooga man battles cancer and this weekend's half marathon

With months to live, one Chattanooga man battles cancer and this weekend's half marathon

March 3rd, 2016 by David Cobb in Local Regional News

Nathan Sexton, 29, goes on a 5k lunch training run on Feb. 25. Sexton is eight and a half months into a fight with brain cancer. His initial prognosis was that he'd have 15 months to live, so he decided to make the most of it and train to compete in the Chattanooga Marathon half marathon on Sunday.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Chattanooga man battles cancer and this weekend's half marathon

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ERLANGER CHATTANOOGA MARATHON

Saturday
9-10 a.m.: Classic 150 5K starts at Tennessee Pavilion

9 a.m.-7 p.m.: Expo/Packet pickup/Registration at First Tennessee Pavilion

11 a.m.: Kids’ 1-mile Fun Run starts at First Tennessee Pavilion

11 a.m.-4 p.m.: Live entertainment

Sunday
8 a.m.: Marathon, marathon relay and half marathon start at Broad Street and Tennessee Aquarium>9 a.m.: Post-race party and food at First Tennessee Pavilion

As Nathan Sexton strives for the finish line in Sunday's Erlanger Chattanooga half marathon, he knows there will be pain.

That pain, he says, will simply be an analogy for what God is teaching him on a life journey that was rudely interrupted last summer.

June 4, 2015, was supposed to be a banner day for Sexton and his employer, Bellhops.

But it turned into a nightmare.

The fast-growing moving company startup was in its first day working out of a plush new Warehouse Row office when Sexton, the vice president of operations, suffered three seizures.

He woke up in a hospital bed a day and a half later. Disoriented and with a tube down his throat, he scribbled a note to a nurse asking what happened.

Within weeks, an MRI revealed a mass. It was stage 4 glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer that brings an average life expectancy of 15 months.

The diagnosis came more than eight months ago with no regard for a job Sexton loves and the family he is raising.

But it did little to deter the sense of optimism the Knoxville native and University of Tennessee graduate has always possessed.

Though he's never been a distance runner, the former Bearden High School sprinter trained for Sunday's race with a program designed for experienced half marathon runners, all while undergoing maintenance chemotherapy.

"It's kind of a bucket-list thing," Sexton said. "I've always been competitive, but I'm doing it as a metaphor just to kind of be able to endure pain over a long period of time."

He spends 23 days off chemotherapy followed by five days on a pill called Temodar, which is a brain cancer treatment designed to slow cancer cell growth.

Sexton, now head of the Bellhops business intelligence team, works from home during the days he is doing chemo and doubles up on his training program to make up for runs that he misses.

He's shooting for an 8:15-mile pace in the 13.1-mile race.

"It's crazy. It's unbelievable," said Matt Patterson, a friend of Sexton's and the chief operating officer for Bellhops. "And not only is he training, he's running like seven-and-a-half-minute miles."

Patterson is among a group of 40 Bellhops employees running the half marathon in support of Sexton, who joined the company in 2014.

"He might win," Patterson said. "Out of all 40 of us running, he might finish first. I don't know who else is going to beat him. I think that's a testament to who he is. He's a very determined person, even down to his eating habits. He's so disciplined. No one has trained him to do some of the things he's been doing. He's just learned.

"And it's kind of funny, because that's just how he is as a person. We're a startup business, and he's done things way outside of his job description."

Sexton came to Bellhops as the leader of the company's customer service team from a job in the financial services world that paid nearly twice as much.

That move came in early 2014, the same time he and his wife, Elizabeth, became parents of Jack and homeowners on Signal Mountain.

"The ink was barely dry on the mortgage, but there was this great opportunity," Sexton said. "I told my wife and she said, 'Let's do it.'"

The move paid off. Bellhops grew, and so did Sexton's role.

Eventually, the stress of playing a key role in a young company seemed to be taking a toll, but Sexton had no reason to believe a mass the size of a baseball was growing in his brain. Though in retrospect, the mood changes and blurred vision caused by the tumor pressing on his optic nerve were signs something was wrong.

"I didn't have a lapse of memory or anything like that," Sexton said. "It was really just the seizure, and eventually, we went up to Knoxville, and there they looked at the MRIs and told us it was a fast-growing tumor and we needed to get it removed as soon as possible."

After his brain healed from the initial surgery, Sexton underwent six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy while returning to work part time.

Since switching to the maintenance chemotherapy, Sexton has been working full time, with a renewed perspective on workplace leadership.

He penned a first-person story that appeared in Forbes Magazine about how his diagnosis forced him to learn how to delegate responsibilities to co-workers and helped him develop an others-first mentality.

In his new position, Sexton focuses on optimizing Bellhops' operations in the company's 80-plus markets.

"This is the perfect role for me right now," he said. "So much of the time, people get cancer — whatever form — and it's a death sentence. Everybody has a timeline, but we also have a deadline or a clock on our life. So much of the time you don't want to think about it, obviously.

"But for cancer patients, we're kind of forced to think about it. It is what it is. We could die tomorrow. It forces you back into reality, and it's like, 'Hey, even though we have this disease, it doesn't mean that we stop living our lives.'"

Sexton is fighting the bleak odds of his prognosis with a positive outlook. He adopted a ketogenic diet, which consists primarily of healthy fats and very few carbohydrates, to inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

There are breakthroughs every few weeks, he said. Though he said only 5 percent of those with his form of cancer live beyond five years, he envisions himself lasting beyond that benchmark.

"I don't think I've ever really been angry at all at the diagnosis," Sexton said. "There have definitely been times when I've been sad just thinking about my son and wanting to see him grow up. And there's a great chance that I won't be able to do that. Those are things that are tough to think about. But, if anything, this has made my relationship with my wife much stronger. There are so many things to be thankful for in the midst of all this."

Sexton, who attends Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, said his relationship with God has grown stronger since his diagnosis, too.

"I just have to trust that he has everything under control," Sexton said.

There was a girl who watched Sexton's surgery and decided to become a neurosurgeon. That girl, Sexton said, could create some sort of groundbreaking therapy that saves the lives of others with cancer. Who knows how his life and outlook on it might affect others.

"There are so many intertwining webs that I don't see because I don't have the perspective that God has," Sexton said. "So I won't know the impact until I die and get to heaven and he presses a play button and I get to see the work that he's done with my situation."

In the meantime, there is a half marathon to run.

Sexton said he is lucky. Sunday is the best day the race could have fallen on, because he is scheduled to begin his next five-day round of chemotherapy on Sunday night.

While Sexton's body weakens, his ability to endure grows, both on the race course and in life.

"Before this, the most I think I've ever run in my whole life is six miles," Sexton said. "And I was proud of that."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.