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Marathon Mission

Runner doesn’t let cancer slow her down

November 7, 2022

Mary Jo Wiggins. Photo by Donn Jones

For 51 years, life had been pretty easy. I’ve lived a very average, comfortable and ordinary life. Not boring, just ordinary. Not perfect, but happy and content.

I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a nice, safe small town with good Midwestern values, with my parents and older brother. Whether it was life challenges thrown at me, or those that I chose, they were always doable. My early years were mostly smooth sailing. My parents’ divorce in my early teen years didn’t faze me much; they made it easy on me and my brother. I loved high school, and classes were easy for me. I wasn’t valedictorian, but I graduated in the top 10 of my class. I married my college boyfriend and followed him to Nashville in 1995; it wasn’t exotic, but it wasn’t the Midwest.  

Shortly after moving to Nashville, life threw me my first real personal challenge that I didn’t choose: a divorce I didn’t see coming. I was financially stable and enjoying Nashville, so I stayed. The one gift of my divorce was my deepened faith. I knew God had a plan, and I must have needed to get to Nashville to see it play out.

On April 15, 2000, I married a native Nashvillian, my adoring husband, Todd Wiggins. One of the first things I did after our wedding was take on a new challenge of my own choosing: run a full marathon and raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I had not run a single mile since I was a freshman in high school, so it was a big stretch for me. I trained, had fun, raised money and completed 26.2 miles. Checking that off my list, I turned my focus to starting a family. 

That became my next unexpected challenge: pregnancy. We suffered two miscarriages and again needed to lean on God and my faith. In 2003, we joyfully welcomed our first daughter, Grace; in 2004, a second daughter, Tess, and in 2006, a son, Sam. Three kids in four years; and the new challenge of learning to operate with little sleep.  

Life got busy. Our kids grew, our circle of friends grew, Nashville grew. Life was fun and always in motion. In 2014, running came back into my life again. Not because I enjoyed running, but I wanted to experience a new challenge, a 200-mile Ragnar Relay race. Two vans, 12 women, continuous running through the night, 30 hours of no sleep — it sounded like an adventure. We didn’t have to win, we just had to have fun and finish, and we did. Running became social, a great excuse to see friends and get exercise. I was average at best. It led to a new challenge, to run a half-marathon, in every state. It’s been a fun adventure traveling the states and spending time with friends.

For my 51st birthday I scheduled my colonoscopy. A little late, but due to COVID in 2020 and my good health, I wasn’t concerned. On Nov. 4, 2021, I left the colonoscopy clinic knowing I had cancer, even though pathology wouldn’t confirm it until Nov. 8. I remember going into the procedure being told cancer is detected in only 1% of cases. My diagnosis meant I was part of that 1%. That didn’t feel very average or ordinary.

This life challenge would become another adventure. It was a whirlwind. I spent Veterans Day at Vanderbilt seeing doctors and having MRIs and CT scans. The news just kept getting worse. It was stage 4 rectal cancer; it had spread to my liver. My treatment plan would include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

It’s all very strange and surreal. For me, there was not a moment of shock or a sudden burst of tears. There was an oddly calm thought of, why not me? I’m not any better than all the other people I’ve known to fight this battle. I’m not more special or protected. I quickly realized I had every single weapon I needed to fight this — faith, family, friends and Vanderbilt. I’ve always bought into the belief of “everything happens for a reason.” I haven’t always been able to see the reason; some things are so sad or terrible. However, this didn’t seem to be that tough to accept. I can do this; I can fight and win, and I can make something good of this.  

Most importantly, I had to share my story so others would know the importance of screening. Just as I was diagnosed with cancer, the screening age for colon cancer was reduced to 45. I posted on social media, I told co-workers, and I encouraged friends. It was incredibly rewarding when I would hear of someone who scheduled their screening because of me.

I also thought if I could talk about cancer and what I was going through, others could be more comfortable around people with cancer. Cancer is horrible, and nobody really wants to talk about it. I realized I had friends who went through cancer, and I didn’t do enough for them. I certainly didn’t ask them enough questions about how they were feeling or what they were going through. I had no idea what cancer treatment was going to be like, physically or emotionally. I would learn soon enough.

But first, I would run one more half- marathon for the year in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Would my body feel different? Could I convince my mind everything was the same as it was two weeks earlier before I was diagnosed with cancer? Not only did we have a great race, but we enjoyed the weekend with friends and came home ready to take the steps in my cancer journey.

I needed to have my port implanted, and then decide which day I would choose for chemotherapy infusions: Tuesdays or Thursdays? That decision would affect my ability to maintain a normal, full-time workload. If I chose Tuesday,  the worst days would be that week and I’d feel better by the weekend. If I chose Thursday, the worst days would be over the weekend and I’d feel better by Monday, ready to go back to the office. I chose Thursdays. All I wanted was to keep things as normal as possible. Work is my normal. I work in finance for Metro Nashville Government. I have a comfortable office in the historic courthouse with a nice view. Despite the COVID pandemic, I went to the office every day. I sure didn’t need to be home thinking about cancer. I would rather be in the office tending to my busy schedule. 

On Dec. 2, 2021, I received my first drops of chemotherapy, and so it began. The plan was eight-12 rounds of chemo with scans after rounds four and eight. I was pleased with my medical team and quickly got into my treatment routine. Every other week I felt normal and always had a good weekend. Months before my diagnosis, I had registered for a half- marathon the first weekend in February, and it fell on one of my good weekends.

After five rounds of chemo, but even fewer training runs, I decided to give the New Orleans, Louisiana, race a shot. It was a slow jog, but we did it. There were tears of happiness as I finished, grateful my body cooperated, and I could still do something so normal for me. State No. 25 was complete. It gave me confidence, maybe even a cockiness to think maybe I would register for another race despite cancer and chemo.

In March, after eight rounds of chemo and another set of scans, we decided on one more round of chemo, and then on to radiation. At my last chemo appointment, I wasn’t prepared for the nurse to ask me if I wanted to ring the bell. I had a moment of doubt. I have a high risk of recurrence, so I didn’t want to jinx myself by ringing the bell to signify my last chemo treatment. My doubt was quickly replaced by faith and optimism. I had completed nine rounds of chemo, and I rang that bell loud and proud.

I unhooked the infusion pump and pulled the needle from my port for the last time on March 26. A week later, I  tackled another half- marathon in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. This race wasn’t quite as smooth. One side effect of chemotherapy is neuropathy in my hands and feet. By the time I reached mile 10 my feet were heavy, feeling like they were full of pins and needles. With friends by my side, we finished, and state No. 26 was checked off. My outlook and attitude continued to soar high.  

The next week, I had radiation treatment, every day for five days in a row.  The general consensus was that radiation would be much easier than chemo, and I expected it to be a walk in the park. I expected a week of side effects and then I’d have almost two months of no treatments, just normal life waiting for surgery. I even registered for another half-marathon. That race proved to be the most challenging. Radiation was much harder on me than expected, and the neuropathy in my feet had gotten much worse. I truly had no business thinking I could do this race. Less than halfway through, I realized it was a really bad idea. I was having to make many bathroom stops, and my feet were in sheer pain. We were moving so slowly, but I was trying to smile. We finished, and this time it was tears of frustration; I felt my body failed me. As we drove home from the race in state No. 27, I could finally start to feel the sense of accomplishment and laugh at the absurdity of taking on that challenge.

Next up is surgery, with a long recovery. I don’t know all that this cancer journey holds for me. I do know this cancer journey has brought me more blessings and joyful moments than I could have imagined. It is a gift to feel so loved and supported. I wish everyone could feel this without having to go through cancer. I’ve learned that being ordinary doesn’t mean you can’t do extraordinary things. Life will always be full of challenges; some we choose, some we don’t. How we tackle them, and maybe more importantly, how we help others overcome their challenges is what can be extraordinary. I know I’ll always be looking for ways to support others, to cheer them on and make sure they know they are loved. I have much to be grateful for, and I also have a half-marathon in 23 more states to complete.