Running down cancer

Road racing can be therapeutic for patients, family and friends

  • Jon Sherbun is being treated for pancreatic cancer, and he's about to run the Maryland Half Marathon.
Jon Sherbun is being treated for pancreatic cancer, and he's… (Algerina Perna, Baltimore…)
May 11, 2011|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

When Jon Sherbun laces up for the Maryland Half Marathon this weekend, he won't be just another runner pounding 13.1 miles of pavement. He'll be a pancreatic cancer patient racing in between chemotherapy treatments.

That puts him in a growing category of patients and their families and friends who are running for physical and emotional therapy, as well as cash that can benefit others. The money from this race, in its third year, benefits the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center where Sherbun is being treated.

"The running helped me fight cancer and tolerate treatment," said Sherbun, 56, who lives in Crofton and was diagnosed more than a year ago with one of the most deadly cancers. He's now cancer-free after surgery and undergoing chemotherapy to keep it from returning.

"I had an outcome you don't anticipate, so I'm glad I can do something for [the cancer center]," he said. "I get choked up thinking about it."

Research suggests that physical activity not only helps cancer patients feel better during treatment, but that it also reduces the risk of getting some cancers. Sherbun and many others appear to get another lift from raising money for their cause.

The National Cancer Institute says physical activity specifically appears to reduce risk of cancers of the colon and breast and has been linked to reduced risk of endometrial, lung and prostate cancers. Exercise may enhance survivorship for those with many of these cancers, though studies are continuing. The research also shows improved quality of life, with reduced fatigue and a sense of emotional well-being.

All of the running is approved by Sherbun's doctor, Naimish Pandya, a medical oncologist and an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He cited cardiovascular benefits and growing evidence that exercise can help deter cancer in general by stimulating the immune system.

Sherbun is likely doing so well with treatment because he's been so health-conscious over the years, Pandya said. Sherbun eats and sleeps well, has good relationships and exercises regularly.

Pandya said exercise becomes more important when someone is diagnosed with cancer because it helps the patient endure sometimes long and intensive treatment. Sherbun was told about a year ago that his cancer was inoperable, which means it tends not to be cured. But after being given high doses of chemotherapy and radiation in a clinical trial, his tumors shrank enough for a surgical procedure.

Sherbun's progress has been "remarkable," Pandya said. He now tells all his patients to exercise as much as they can. If they can run a charity race, even better.

"Races do two things: One, they really boost patients' confidence in their ability to accomplish even small goals they set for themselves," he said. "Second, no matter where they get care … they are very appreciative and want to give back for fellow patients."

That goes for both patients and their loved ones. The growth in road racing has skyrocketed, largely driven by such charitable fundraising, according to Running USA, which promotes the industry and tracks trends.

The group says that 21/2 times as many people participated in races in 2009 compared with 1989. And many runners choose races that benefit a specific cause, such as the Maryland Half Marathon, or the nation's biggest cause-related running event, Race for the Cure, which funds breast cancer research.

But Running USA also reports that many others are drawn to racing through training programs that often involve fundraising. The largest such program is Team in Training, which has raised $1 billion for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society since 1988 and has participants in hundreds of races around the nation.

Officials at USA Track and Field, which governs running events, estimates runners now raise well over $1 billion a year for charities. The number is likely higher because fundraising isn't always reported to race organizers.

Jill Greer, a spokeswoman for the group, said charitable giving has led to a second running boom as people search for a way to do something for someone other than themselves.

"Running has gone from a competitive activity or an exercise-related activity to a social movement in this country," she said. "People want a sense of achievement. And this is a win-win situation for the charities and the people running. There are hundreds if not millions of Americans taking part in exercise activities they might not otherwise have contemplated."

The specific motivations are different for everyone, said Anne Bonney, a personal trainer and director of the Maryland Half Marathon's new training program, Marlene's Mission.

Some survived cancer or know someone who has had the disease, and they want to honor or remember that person. Bonney said her husband is a firefighter and more likely to get cancer because of his exposure to carcinogens, so she wanted to contribute.

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