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Running to fight cancer, inspire others

Colleen Johnson Moments 2

Colleen knew her health wasn’t the best. At 242 pounds, she had Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis. She wasn’t surprised that she was affected by these lifestyle health issues, as she admittedly did not exercise and didn’t have the best diet. She resigned herself to a life with health concerns.

Then, two days after her 57th birthday, Colleen was diagnosed with a rare strain of endometrial cancer. Doctors removed a tumor the size of a cantaloupe from her womb and, even with treatment, she only had a 1 in 5 chance of living for five more years.

As a retired professor of research methodology and statistics at the University of Memphis, Colleen did some digging and found a surprising result: a significant body of research suggested that losing weight and exercising may slow the return of some cancers, including the strain of endometrial cancer she had. This is where Colleen’s #StartWithHealthy moment began.

“My life is worth fighting for,” Colleen said. “So I went on a 1,500 calorie diet and began a regular exercise program to help shed the pounds right after my surgery.”

With the help of a nutritionist and a physical therapist, Colleen began a walking program. At first, she couldn’t run once around the 1/8 mile track at her gym.

Then one day, she did.

“I was only nine months post-surgery the day I first did that, and just a few months after completion of radiation therapy,” she said. “I couldn’t have been happier if I had won the Boston Marathon!”

That day, Colleen decided to become a long-distance runner.

She ran her first 5K 11 months after her surgery and ran her first half marathon just 22 days later. Since then, she has run three ultra-marathons, six full marathons, 20 half marathons and more than 80 5K and 10K races.

Almost three years later, Colleen’s blood sugar levels have returned to normal and she weighs 140 pounds.

Her story quickly spread through her community in West Tennessee, an area with some of the highest obesity rates in the country.

“People are dying due to their poor lifestyle choices in my community,” she said. “But at least a few of them see what I’m doing to improve my own health, and they are saying ‘If she can do it, so can I.’ And they are changing their own lifestyles so they can experience the health that they see in my examples and in my actions.”

Colleen wants to lead by example. Now 60 years old, she hopes to show older people that age doesn’t have to be a barrier to getting started on a healthy routine. She also uses her history to show by example that even a devastating medical diagnosis doesn’t have to hold you back. She is a volunteer coach for the Memphis Runners Track Club, where she helps encourage older women and women with health challenges to begin a walking or running regimen.

“I didn’t intend that to happen. When I set out to change my life, I just did it for myself,” she said. “But then, over time, I started having people come up to me and tell me that they were changing their own lives because of the example I set.  It was just a trickle at first, but the frequency that this happens has grown over time.”

Colleen Johnson Moments 1

In New Orleans, Colleen proved that, not only can age and illness not stop her, but neither can injury. While running the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon, she fell just after the 10-mile mark, breaking her wrist and cutting her chin. After some help from the medical team, she completed the next 16 miles with a chin that would need stitches and an untreated broken wrist.

Colleen also runs to bring attention to the “forgotten ladies” who are struggling with cancer. She runs every race wearing a royal blue shirt that reads “From cancer to a marathon: Fighting my cancer one mile at a time” on the front and “In memory of the 10,470 ladies who will die this year of endometrial cancer” on the back.

“The statistics say I should have died by the end of 2015,” she said. “But I’m still alive, and I feel healthier than I have felt for years.”

Share your #StartWithHealthy moment with us at RunRocknRoll.com/moments.