Kennedy: 62-year-old runner is opening eyes to uterine cancer

Kennedy: 62-year-old runner is opening eyes to uterine cancer

September 14th, 2017 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns
Colleen Johnson

Colleen Johnson

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Five years ago, Colleen Johnson was 100 pounds overweight and battling endometrial cancer.

During the Labor Day weekend earlier this month, Johnson, a retired Memphis State University faculty member, ran a 100-mile ultra-marathon.

The remarkable, five-year turnaround is a testament to both Johnson's efforts to improve her survival odds and the power of diet and exercise to battle life-threatening conditions.

Johnson, who lives in Bolivar, Tenn., and is 62 "years young," said endometrial cancer (sometimes called uterine cancer) doesn't get as much media attention as other cancers.

Meanwhile, she said the number of women dying of endometrial cancer each year is on the rise, and doctors don't know why.

The number of uterine cancer deaths in the United States increased 56 percent between 2000 and 2015, she said, and another 9 percent increase is expected when numbers are in for the 2015-2017 period.

Johnson is an expert in statistical research. She described herself as a retired "number cruncher" turned chicken farmer. These cancer numbers jump out at her, as does the troubling news that endometrial cancer is now the fifth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths among American women.

Five years ago, when she was 57, Johnson asked her doctor why she hadn't hit menopause. He immediately suspected endometrial cancer.

"It was such a textbook case that it was a safe guess on his part," Johnson said. "I'm a highly educated person, but I had to ask him, 'What the cluck is endometrial cancer?"'

"What the cluck" is chicken farmer humor, explained Johnson, who has a wry sense of humor.

Doctors discovered a deeply invasive, two-pound tumor "the size of a cantaloupe" growing inside her.

Unlike breast cancer, which laudably has produced a robust awareness and research culture, endometrial cancer sufferers don't have a vast support system. Johnson is trying to help change that a little by publicizing her own human interest story.

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

When her diagnosis was confirmed, Johnson said, she was given just a 20 percent chance of living for five years.

Still, she was determined to use her research skills to try to improve her prognosis.

"I read a whole blasted textbook on endometrial cancer," Johnson said. "It was better than Sominex."

She found, through research, that diabetes and obesity were contributors to mortality in endometrial cancer patients, and so she became determined to live a healthier, more fit lifestyle.

"I went from the point that I couldn't run an eighth of a mile to running in a marathon in less than a year," she said.

Her first attempt at a marathon was in February 2014 in Millington, Tenn., she recalls.

"I'm not a fast runner," she said. "It was hard."

About 20 miles into the 26.2-mile race race her legs began cramping and she started to wonder if she would finish. At that point, another runner appeared at her side and asked if she was OK.

"I'll be back," promised the runner, Steve Hughes of Little Rock, Ark., who then ran off into the distance.

True to his word, Hughes later reappeared and coaxed Johnson to the finish line, distracting her from her aching legs with praise.

"He was pumping me up, getting me excited, talking about anything and everything that would take my mind off the pain," she said.

Johnson finished the race and later discovered that Hughes had run ahead and circled back to her without finishing the race himself. He decided to officially finish last in the marathon so that she wouldn't, Johnson later discovered.

"He became my friend that day," she said.

Since 2014, Johnson has run 10 marathons and eight ultra-marathons.

"I'm still undergoing treatment, but I consider myself cancer-free," Johnson said. "My fifth anniversary [of the cancer diagnosis] will be in October."

Johnson said her peak weight was 242 pounds and she got down to 142 before leveling off at 148.

"It's amazing how motivating saving your life can be," she said.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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