Final Marathon

by Marina Symcox

April 28, 2001

Seven months ago I could barely walk a few steps. There were two occasions when something happened so that I could not coordinate my right leg. For days I needed a walker to move from my bed to the bathroom. I was dying from late stage soft tissue sarcoma. Then came news of STI-571, followed by a hard pilgrimage to Portland Oregon from a little town I like to call Bristow America. I failed the blood test requirements for the clinical trial the first time, and Dr. Blanke gave me a second chance to pass the test two days later. I passed ever so slightly. Dr. Blanke admitted me to the trial. He told me recently that he had been tenuous and worried about me starting the trial. I was in terrible condition. But then some orange pills, containing a derivative of 2-phenylaminopyrimidine, changed my life.

Tomorrow is the Inaugural Oklahoma City Marathon. The event shall honor victims of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, and the theme is Celebrate Life. In April 1995, I worked at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, a mile from the bombing site. From my west facing 9th floor window, I could see the gaping remains of the Federal Building, which had become a familiar grim image on television. I could see the boom of a crane covered with state flags from all over the nation. Occasionally, the crane would sweep across the dark hull of the Federal Building, and I knew it was moving slabs of wreckage so crews could search for victims. To the southeast, I could see the office of the Oklahoma Medical Examiner. This structure was once such a nondescript feature of my cityscape. But in April 1995, it was surrounded with police barricades, law enforcement vehicles and refrigeration trucks. My co-workers knew stories about people who had been near the bombing site. A medical student who frequented the Biochemistry Department told stories of helping in the coroner’s office. The morning newspapers circulating in my laboratory documented a daunting parade of dead faces, but I didn’t know any of those people. The radio-station playing in my laboratory explained to listeners where to donate supplies for the rescue crews, but I didn’t have any of those things. I witnessed the morbid drama, but the distance of a 9th floor view sanitized my experience.

As for me, I was busy collecting data about mutants of cAMP-dependent Protein Kinase. I had my own postdoctoral funds, and things looked good. I was pregnant, and had a faculty job waiting for me at the University of Tulsa. I spent most of my day thinking about biochemistry and not about the images through my 9th floor window. In the spring of 1995, I hadn’t heard of another protein kinase named Kit, and so I had no clue that a catastrophe of c-kit lurked in my gut. I never thought about getting cancer while in my 30’s, and so I had no idea that I was approaching a personal nightmare.

Five years have passed since I realized that I didn’t want to be a biochemist. Three years have passed since I learned that I had a rare and deadly cancer. Only seven months have passed since I learned about c-kit and that one of its mutants was killing me. During these same seven months, STI-571 began reclaiming me. Today if I read an article about c-kit, I might reflect upon all those hours collecting data about mutants of cAMP-dependent Protein Kinase. It is a period from another world. I am no longer a student of biochemistry. I am a marathoner of adversity. During the past months I have learned lessons about human nature, family bonds, friendships, and about the better side of living in a small town America. I am exquisitely aware of the ephemeral nature of life. Cancer has crushed me and enriched me at the same time. Cancer has brought me some special gifts. One such gift is Kris Wyatt, who tried so hard to give me solace and personal philosophy during my eight months in hospice.

Kris Wyatt runs marathons. I have never learned how to enjoy running, but I have learned about the Gift of Walking. Lately I’ve been walking three miles around the beautiful city lake just a few blocks from my house. Sometimes I can break into a little jog for a short distance. I walk because Kris has marvelous insight and understands symbolism. She has asked me to walk a three-mile segment of her Quad Relay team in the Oklahoma City Marathon. Tomorrow morning I will start at the Oklahoma City Memorial where so many met destiny through an act of inconceivable malice. I will continue near the building where I once studied a protein kinase, and up the boulevard to my state’s Capitol. My destiny has become one of inconceivable good fortune as I walk with STI-571. I will celebrate the Gift of Walking. I will thank Dr. Blanke for sending a Life-Raft to a very sick GIST patient. I will salute the world’s bio-medical researchers, and perhaps most especially to the chemists who designed the molecule of STI-571. I cannot miss the irony of my situation. I used to collect data about a mutant protein kinase, and now I am someone else’s successful data about another mutant protein kinase. There seems to be some kind of symmetry to all of that. I will carry prayers for the families of the bombing victims, though mostly I will embrace my orange pills and the army of people who have rallied around my life. A few of these people are close to me, but most I have never met and have never heard of me. These people have one thing in common–they have brought me the Gift of Walking.