A popular national columnist and contributing writer, Martha Randolph Carr is the author of Wired, The Sitting Sisters, A Place to Call Home and Live Your Big Adventure. She is also a cancer survivor, Chi runner and picture of grace in motion.
The afternoon we were scheduled to talk, she pinged me apologetically that she would be late. She’d been running with Mo, and like any great run, it had continued longer than expected because it was going well. I soon learned, that afternoon summarizes Martha perfectly – embracing the experience and endlessly thoughtful. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In October of 2009, Martha followed a suspicion that a dime-sized mole on her leg might be melanoma. A freelance writer new to Chicago, she thought she had neither the monetary nor network resources needed to find a dermatologist. But upon the suggestion of a new friend, she called Northwestern, which reportedly offered a grant that could be used for diagnosis and treatment. The decision to pursue that grant, at that particular moment, saved her life.
There is no chemotherapy treatment available for melanoma. It is the fastest growing cancer in the USA. It is second only to leukemia in killing people of working age; but it doesn’t discriminate by age, or by skin color for that matter.
Martha became friends with another melanoma patient who waited six months longer than she did to have his melanoma treated, and he succumbed to the cancer in January. Martha commented, “As difficult as it was to lose my friend, it did teach me that I’m not dying – I would be dead already if it was.”
Melanoma is the only cancer that occurs on a visible organ. All it takes is a body map and once a year check to stop this killer. Humility and a few minutes of your time is not much to ask.
“You get reminded that this small thing could kill you. And there is no chemo. So I tell everyone if a mole is bigger than an eraser, an odd shape or odd color, you must get checked. Go early.”
After her biopsy, Dr. Jeffery Wayne informed Martha that she had about a year to live, but that there was hope if she had surgery soon. She took in that news with her adult son Louie, whose humor and perspective has earned him the title “hero” in his mom’s estimation. What she heard was that she had a year until she would die. Louie heard that there was hope.
Melanoma spreads like wild fire, so surgery was scheduled for a week later. To get the grant would take 45-60 days. But again, there was hope – Maryanne. A clerk in the billing office, Maryanne walked Martha’s application from person to person and got it approved in one day.
There was hope, and then there was grace. Friends from across the world and virtually every spiritual and religious belief system began to pray for her through word, dance and ceremony.
The day of the surgery, Martha asked Dr. Wayne to avoid doing a skin graft on her leg after the melanoma was removed. She’d worked in a burn unit and knew that the graft could be as painful as the cancer removal. Dr. Wayne met the request with the promise that they’d try, but in his experience, a skin graft was always part of the process.
Though the removal left a gouged space in her leg, there was no graft. And there was no pain.
Following the surgery, the focus was grace and surrender. She’d survived the surgery. There was no graft. But the results were still out. Then, two weeks after the surgery she answered a call from the doctor, who told her to sit down when the news was delivered…that the biopsy was negative. Even the medical team couldn’t believe it.
The news hasn’t been all good, or all easy. Martha has undergone a MOHS surgery on her chin for a different melanoma. She has a divot on her arm – that she jokes looks like extra bicep muscles – from the removal of a Basal Cell Carcinoma. But it’s been 18 months since the spot on her leg was removed, and “there is still a small chance that it could reoccur but I have opened the door to grace and surrender, and it has been quite a journey.”
Part of that journey is on foot, part in flight. Not long ago, Martha learned to use Twitter and also to relearn to walk …with a goal of learning again to run, but this time to learn about natural running, and even to do a 5K to “prove to myself and my son that I wasn’t going to die anytime soon.” She followed a conversation on Twitter about skydiving, responding that she had tried that once and if she could do that, she could survive melanoma surgery.
That conversation was her call to action. Martha connected with Chicagoland Skydiving Center, which offered to sponsor her in a 5K and then treat her to skydiving later that day. And more, they would introduce her to Mo Wills of Infinity Multi-Sport, who had offered to teach Martha Chi Running.
“I had just learned to walk again and had a lurch to my step so I was skeptical,” Martha admitted. “When I met with Mo, I realized how much lack of trust that I had.”
That was until Mo began to make small changes to the way Martha would stand, then slight adjustments to how she was walking. Suddenly, she found herself walking more smoothly. Gradually, with the help of Chi Running techniques and a metronome, Martha has reached a steady 11-minute mile pace, and “I feel connected to something bigger when I’m Chi Running.”
She hopes to run her 5K at a 10-minute per mile pace at the August 6 Champion Race in Chicago.
“I’m 51 and realizing that I don’t know anything. That surrender – the Chi – is pushing me farther. When I found out I might die, I stepped outside of my comfort zone and never found my way back. With Chi, I know it is okay to be that way. I am learning more about myself and my ability to trust than I am about running…Mo is teaching me to believe that more is possible.”
A writer by trade and a generous spirit, she is using the gifts she’s been given by Mo, Dr. Wayne, Chicagoland Skydiving Center, Louie and her many friends, to spur progress for melanoma awareness and funding, “The two leading causes are long term sun exposure, which is so common to athletes, and tanning bed use. I want to inspire people to get checked and to be careful.”
Join the Progress
Follow Martha’s progress at www.marthacarr.com. The site offers videos, information about melanoma, and a conversation component where survivors and patients can connect. The goal is to persuade everyone to get checked regularly and also to raise funds for Northwestern’s Melanoma Research program, which is leading the nation in working to find a drug treatment. She has mastered Twitter, and you can follow her progress via @MarthaRandolph and #5Kproject.
“I believe that our main purpose is to be of maximum service to God – this isn’t about me. God has my back…we’re taking it one day at a time.”
Like any passionate runner, Martha anticipates that she’ll do her 5K and sign up for a 10K when she gets home. The only difference between Martha and any passionate runner? She’ll skydive in between the running and the committing.
“This is an accidental journey. It is amazing that I’m at the start.I know that if we can keep talking, we can save lives.” (Martha Carr)