A blog by runners. For runners.

Ex-Smoker and Cancer Survivor Turned Marathon Runner

This week on the WalkJogRun Podcast, we interviewed Julie Guarducci, an ex-smoker and lung cancer survivor who now is training for her first marathon despite a collapsed lung which affects her breathing.

We transcribed this podcast below, or you may choose to listen to the audio.

Quitting smoking, starting running and a cancer diagnosis

Life after cancer

Raising cancer awareness

Quitting smoking, starting running and a cancer diagnosis

Caitlin: Would you mind sharing a little bit about your story and how that led to you becoming interested in running?

Julie: Sure. Probably around the time that I quit smoking, I decided that it was time to get healthy all around. So I quit smoking, decided to try and start eating properly, and I also joined a gym. I was working with a trainer and doing quite a few spin classes. I kind of got bored with that and then started running on the treadmill, so that's how my running started.

Caitlin: At what point did you get your cancer diagnosis?

Julie: I was diagnosed in July of 2010. I think it was about 2 years after I had quit smoking that I was diagnosed.

Caitlin: Wow, is that very common?

Julie: Looking back at what I now know to be symptoms, I think I had the cancer when I started working out at the gym. I just didn't know it. I didn't know what the signs were.

Caitlin: How did you gradually go about building up your mileage having just quit smoking. Was it difficult to do that?

Julie: It was difficult. But I think what helped me is that I was doing spin classes, and spin classes are very much a cardio class if you haven't done them before. It really gets the heart going and breathing really hard. I think that helped me, and when I did meet a running coach, because I told her I had been running on the treadmill and that I had been doing spin classes, I think she thought that I was good to go. And my first run, she sent me out on three miles, and I thought I was going to die. But I did it. It was more of a run/walk, but I did it. She does it in increments of two: two weeks you do three miles, two weeks you do five miles, and two weeks you do seven miles to build up your mileage. But by my third week, she had me at seven miles and I was like, 'I can't do this.' I did the seven. It was tough, but then she realized I really hadn't been running as much as she had originally thought. So she cut me back down and started gradually building my mileage back up.

Caitlin: Once you had your cancer diagnosis, you had to put your exercise on hold. Is that correct?

Julie: Once I started treatment, yes. Actually, it was before, because I had an extremely dry cough that just lingered for months, and I kept going to the doctor to figure out what it was and had a lingering fever. I didn't know what was wrong with me. So I kind of stopped running before I was diagnosed, just because I was sick. I just didn't know what was wrong. Once I got the diagnosis and started treatment, I was just too out of it. There was no way that I could exercise, so I did have to put everything on hold.

Caitlin: What were some of the thoughts going through your head at that time? What was it like going through all of that?

Julie: Everything was on hold. I was out of work for three months, I believe it was. It was difficult. The chemotherapy they had me on–they had me on two different drugs. They put me on the most aggressive plans that they could, because they wanted to make sure it did not spread to my lymph nodes or anywhere aside from where it already was. It was a pretty large mass; it was actually large enough to collapse my right upper lobe of my lung–which is still collapsed. It will never come back. I had to go to the hospital every day for two weeks for chemotherapy. I was there for about six hours every day. While I was there, they also administered my radiation treatments.

Caitlin: I can't even imagine that…

training group
Julie's first trail run-(from left to right) Nikki Davis (Julie's coach and friend), Tricia Cutcher, Julie and Dawn Hoskings

Julie: Yeah. So pretty much my life was on hold for three months. I would sleep and that was it.

Caitlin: What helped you to get through that time? I know runners a lot of times have something that helps them get through the wall of the marathon or something that helps them get through a tough time. What helped you get through this time?

Julie:Definitely my daughters and my sisters. I was here by myself, I didn't have any family here at all. Everyone took turns coming into town to help me get through the treatments. I'm a very strong willed person, and I kind of looked at it from the very beginning as, 'I did this to myself because I was a smoker and now I have to pay the price and go through my chemo and my radiation and hopefully in the end it will be gone.'

Caitlin: So now you are cancer free?

Julie: I am cancer free. Coming up on three years now.

Caitlin: That is so great! So what would you suggest to others listening that are considering quitting smoking but feel they can't do it or keep failing at it. What would you say to them?

Julie: : I always heard before I quit smoking that people say that no one can tell you to quit, you have to be ready to do it. It really is true, because my youngest daughter used to bug me all the time. I would walk in the house, and she would say, 'Ew, you stink.' But she would always ask me to quit, and I never did. I don't know what it was. Just one day something clicked, and I said okay it's time to quit. I really can't give anyone advice, but if you're at the point where you're thinking about it, do it. Do it before it's too late. Hopefully you won't have to go through what I went through.

Life after cancer

Caitlin: Now that you're cancer free you've been running 6-7 times a week. What does this new lifestyle mean to you?

Julie: It means I don't have time for anything else. I pretty much go to work, come home, and I have maybe about an hour or two before I have to meet my group. We go out and do our runs; I come back home and barely have enough time to eat and take a shower; then it's time for bed. I'm healthier because of it. I wouldn't change anything. Right now I'm kind of burnt out from running, but it's because of the training that I'm doing. And I figure, once I meet my goal, I can back off a bit and throw in some cross-training as well.

Caitlin: Yeah, definitely. You're going to be running in the Chicago Marathon in October. I believe you said it was your first marathon, what has your training been like so far?

Julie: Oh, it's brutal! I think the mileage is one thing, but then you add on top of that the Texas heat–it has been in the hundreds, probably hovering between 100 and102. Actually, yesterday we hit 108 with pretty high humidity, so it is absolutely brutal. The only time I run in the morning is Saturday when I have my long runs. But otherwise, I meet with everyone (and we meet at about 7:00 at night), and it is still 100 degrees. You really have to be dedicated and really want to do a marathon to train in the summertime. We're crazy. I think I'm crazy!

Caitlin: Yeah, we're lucky out here in Chicago–it hasn't been that hot. It was in the 90's a few weeks ago, but it's cooled down since then and has been nice.

Julie: I'm crossing my fingers and praying for cooler weather.

Caitlin: Yeah, in 2009, the Chicago Marathon was freezing cold. 2010–it was extremely warm, and last year it was perfect.

Julie: I'm hoping for perfect weather.

Caitlin: We always are. It's worked out the past few years, so hopefully it will be. With all these new changes in your lifestyle going from smoking to training for a marathon, would you say in a way running has changed your life?

Julie: Oh my goodness, yes. It has changed my life. Definitely! I have an addictive personality, obviously because I was a smoker, so I was addicted to [that]. I think once I get a hold of something that I like, it's just 'I am all in,' and that is how I am right now with running. I am all in. It's just that addictive part of me that just cannot let go of it. As much as I say 'it's brutal and it's killing me; I hate to go out there and run because it's so hot,' I still go out there and I do it. I cannot let go of it. I guess that's a good thing.

Caitlin: It's definitely a different way of channeling it into something better, instead of smoking.

Julie: Absolutely.

Caitlin: : What helps you to be successful in quitting smoking? We hear so much that people aren't able to do it, so then they're not able to workout. But you've been able to do both and go through treatment for cancer. Where does your motivation come from?

Julie: It comes from…probably my father. He was a runner. He ran, I think he said, he would run between 5 and 6 miles every day, except for Saturdays and Sundays. He took the weekends off. He did this when we lived in New Jersey and again when we lived in Arizona. Everyone knows it is warm in Arizona. So I do it for him. He's my motivation.

Caitlin: That's great! So have you encouraged anyone else to quit smoking? I'm sure if I were a smoker and heard your story, I would want to quit smoking and start running like you.

Julie: I try to. They had to do a bronchoscopy on me in order to get a sample of the lung to test if it was lung cancer. I have a picture of that, and it's on my phone. It has to be somebody that I know. If I see [them] smoking, I ask them if they want to see a picture of my lung. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no. The ones who say yes, I show it to them. Hopefully they learn from it. I know one girl–she's a really good runner, a lot faster than I am–she was still smoking so I showed her the picture. I think the only thing that did it for her is that she is now pregnant. So whatever it is, I don't care what it is, but she stopped smoking. I do try but like I said before, you're not going to quit until you're ready. No matter how many pictures I show you of cancer, you're not going to quit until you're ready.

Caitlin: You said that your lung is still collapsed and you were a smoker for many years. I'm not sure if you've ever run previously while you were a smoker but do you think your running and breathing is affected at all today due to the smoking?

Julie: Absolutely. I do think it is. I run at a slow pace. You can hear that I wheeze a lot the further I go. I definitely am an extremely heavy breather because I have a hard time getting the air flow in. I often do wheeze as my runs get longer. It has something to do with the collapsed lung. I've had people ask me if I've taken my asthma medication. They're a little surprised when I tell them I don't have asthma. People can hear it. It definitely has affected me. Like I said, I'm a slow runner; I try to pick up my pace, but the faster I run the harder it is for me to breathe. I try to keep an even pace and make it to the finish line, whatever that finish line may be.

Caitlin: That's great. As long as you're running, who cares what your pace is. That's my philosophy.

Julie: Absolutely.

Raising cancer awareness

Caitlin: Is there anything else that you'd like to share with the listeners about smoking, running or quitting smoking?

Julie: Just that if you can quit smoking, please, please, please do it. If you are either not a runner or not into exercising at all…try it. You may find out you really do like it. Running is extremely hard on the body. There's a lot of pounding to it, and a lot of people don't like it because of that. But that doesn't mean you can't get on a bicycle (whether it's indoors or outdoors) do an aerobics class, or go and lift weights. Just do something! Go out for a walk with your dog, yourself, your children, a friend, anything just to get up and move.

Caitlin: Yeah, that's great advice. I think it's great we were able to have you on the podcast, because I think it's definitely motivating for anyone thinking about quitting and just to raise awareness about lung cancer in general.

Julie: Yeah, a lot of people don't know lung cancer is actually the number one cancer-killer out there right now. It's one of the least known facts. Awareness definitely needs to be brought to it, so I thank you for the opportunity to do that.

Caitlin: No problem! Are you aware of any symptoms that people should be on the lookout for–I know you said you had a dry cough–are you aware of any other symptoms?

Julie: For cancer itself, being tired. I didn't realize it until probably a year afterwards. Every time I would go to the doctors they would ask me, 'Are you tired?' I'd say, 'No.' Thinking back, I was so, so tired, but it was a way of life for me that I didn't think I was tired. It's very hard to explain and very odd. I look back now, and I'm like 'Wow, I was so tired all the time.' Literally, I would come home from work, and I would fall asleep for 30 minutes or an hour, and then I'd go run. That's how tired I was, that I had to get some sleep before I'd go run and I just didn't realize it. One of the other symptoms that I'm aware of, because it did happen to me, is diarrhea. Again it was something I was aware of but pushed back in my head and didn't want to think about. If someone thinks they may have cancer, definitely see your doctor, and if nothing comes up the first time, listen to your body. Like they say in running, listen to your body. I kept going back to my doctor…she didn't know what it was. She diagnosed me with several different things: bronchitis, pneumonia, until we actually had a biopsy done on my lungs. She says she thanks me for going back and listening to my body and continuing to bug her until we had a diagnosis. So listen to your body if you think something is wrong–keep going to your doctor until you have a diagnosis.

Caitlin: Definitely! I think people should always be aware of anything that's different and get it checked out by a doctor, instead of ignoring something that's abnormal to you and your body. And also I think a lot of people aren't aware that even non-smokers are able to get lung cancer, and that's another important factor people need to be aware of.

Julie: Yes there are a lot of non-smokers who do have lung cancer.

Caitlin: Well thank you so much for sharing your story.

Julie: Thank you–like I said, I do appreciate you giving the opportunity to bring awareness about lung cancer, and hopefully the little bit I've talked about will help. Even if it only helps one person, then that's great.

Tune in

You can listen to this podcast while out for a run. Simply click the play button below, or you may download the episode in iTunes.

Duration: 22:22

This podcast is brought to you by Women's Health. For more information, please visit RUN10FEED10.com.