When you’re as avid a runner as John Maack, you’re not about to let anything keep you from doing what you love—not even cancer.
“When I got the call letting me know I had lymphoma, I likened it to running down a trail and somebody jumping out and hitting me in the forehead with a two-by-four,” says John. “But as I would do with my running, if I fell and got injured, I would just get back up and keep running.”
John was diagnosed with stage III mantle cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Once the words sink in, that’s where you make the decision—are you going to let your diagnosis define you or are you going to fight like hell?”
He chose to fight. John received 5 days of continuous chemo in the hospital, followed by a two-week break at home—for 5 months. During that time, he walked 7-8 miles per day when in the hospital and did runs (up to 20 miles each) 4-5 times a week when at home. He created a mantra to keep himself focused on the fight: “Game on, live strong, constant forward motion, sprint to the finish line.”
After chemo, John needed a stem cell transplant, which he describes like this: “They take you as close to death as they can and then bring you back to life.”
In a stem cell transplant (also referred to as a blood or bone marrow transplant), cancerous or damaged blood cells are destroyed and replaced with healthy blood-forming stem cells. Until the new stem cells start producing new blood cells, the patient is at extreme risk for infection because all infection-fighting white blood cells are completely wiped out. Patients must be confined to a germ-free environment for weeks or even months while their immune systems are restored.
A stem cell transplant typically leaves patients very sick and weak. But in John’s case, that didn’t mean he was going to lie in bed. He got permission to bring an exercise bike into his hospital room, which he used every day. And on most days he also walked in the unit at least an hour.
“Exercise helps your whole body heal, and keeping the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems moving is key to recovery and getting through the process,” John says.
One year to the day after he checked into the hospital for the transplant, John completed his sixth 100-mile ultra-marathon, the Wasatch 100.
“Going into the race post–stem cell transplant, I wondered how my body would hold up,” says John. “I trained very hard as I have in the past but at times struggled with running in altitude and had lost some endurance.”
John had also lost muscle mass during treatment, so he worked with the exercise specialists at HCI’s Linda B. and Robert B. Wiggins Wellness-Survivorship Center to train for the run.
“The Wellness Center gave me goals to get my muscle mass back and get in shape to run the Wasatch 100. I’m extremely grateful for what they’ve done to help me reach my goals.”
John’s goal for the Wasatch 100 was simply to finish the race. Runners have 36 hours to complete it; John crossed the finish line after about 34 hours. “It was very emotional, but at the same time very celebratory,” he says.
John’s advice to other patients is to stay active during treatment if you can. “If you have the ability to get up and move around, just do a little bit. You can feel bad lying in bed, or you can feel bad walking around and exercising. You can always do more than you think you can.”
His other advice: “When you find out you have cancer, you have to go through the process just like you do with grieving. You have to acknowledge that you have it but you can’t let it define what the outcome is going to be and who you are.”