It was into a 32-mile run that traverses three 6,000-foot balds in the Western North Carolina mountains that Doug Blackford realized something: he had just completed his 32nd proton therapy treatment for prostate cancer.
A quick check of the list of side effects for radiation therapy quickly reveals why an extreme run more than three-quarters into a cancer treatment regimen is not to be recommended. They include incontinence, abdominal cramping, diarrhea and fatigue—among others.
Blackford—tall, lean and understated—was himself surprised he felt well enough to complete what has become an annual tradition with a few friends and his son. He lives in Boone, N.C.
“I really didn’t expect to be doing this much after this many treatments,” he said. “I kind of expected it was going to be a lot harder, but it hasn’t been.”
Proton therapy isn’t your average radiation. Many patients choose the therapy to avoid the long-term side effects of surgery, brachytherapy or conventional radiation. In a recent survey of patients who had received multiple types of treatment, proton therapy patients reported much less occurrence of the long-term incontinence and impotence the other patients cited.
Blackford, 69, launched his career as an ultra-marathoner in his 50s, initially to support his teenage son who had started cross-country training.
“I would say, ‘Go running.’ He would say, ‘I don’t feel like it.’ And I would say, ‘Let’s go run,’” he said. “After two miles I almost threw up.” He persisted, and after a few months found himself genuinely enjoying the activity.
He joined a running group, and at the end of February, he will run his 15th annual Mt. Mitchell Challenge, a 40-mile trail race to the top of the tallest peak in the Eastern United States—and back. Blackford says he often finds himself alone in his age group, or duking it out with a couple of others.
During his treatment, Blackford maintained his regular running schedule while staying in Knoxville for treatment, and the fact that he ran 32 miles following the same number of treatments was simply coincidence.
The thought occurred to him during the run. He shared the observation with his friends. And he just kept running.