For most of his life, Steven Altchuler, M.D., Ph.D., didn’t think of himself as a runner. Quite the opposite, in fact. “I never enjoyed running, not even as a kid,” he says. But that all changed six years ago, after he was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. Treatment included orders to exercise, and Dr. Altchuler, a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, was surprised to find he actually enjoyed regularly hitting the pavement. Now, he’s crediting that discovery with helping him confront a new diagnosis: stage IV leukemia. It’s a story he loves to tell. And one he’s hoping to share in the pages of Runner's World magazine. (More on that later.)
Dr. Altchuler says he was obese when he started exercising as part of his cardiac rehabilitation program. The weight came off as his mileage went up. Initially, “I’d run between two telephone poles, then walk for three telephone poles,” Dr. Altchuler tells us. But soon, he was running more than he walked. Eventually he began entering races and winning age-group awards.
Today, Dr. Altchuler runs so many races that he’s earned the Phidippides Award from USA Track & Field, which recognizes its members who earn points by participating in road races. “It’s wonderful fun,” Dr. Altchuler says of running. It’s also good medicine — for body and mind. “I physically feel better,” since taking up running, he says. “And I have a greater sense of equanimity. If I run in the morning, next to nothing bothers me all day.”
Running is also helping him cope with cancer, a diagnosis that came with no warning signs or symptoms. “I had a routine checkup Monday, bloodwork on Tuesday, and on Wednesday was diagnosed with leukemia,” Dr. Altchuler tells us. And here’s where running comes in again. “The most effective treatment for the type of cancer I have is not usually given to older people because of the side effects,” he says. “But because of running, I’m physiologically younger than my chronological age.” That means he can have the most aggressive treatment available. (Talk about the benefits of exercise.)
Dr. Altchuler will have six rounds of chemotherapy, and he plans to run through them all. In fact, he ran a half marathon just days after his most recent treatment. He runs, he says, “to prove I’m stronger than my leukemia.” That’s a powerful message. And one he’s hoping to share with a wide audience. Which brings us back to Runner’s World. The magazine is holding a cover search contest and will feature the stories of two winning readers in its December issue. Dr. Altchuler hopes he’ll be one of them.
“I’m a better person, husband, father and doctor for having put regular exercise into my life,” he tells us. And as he wrote in his Runner's World entry, “I don’t know if my leukemia is in remission or not. I do know, it will not keep me from running!”
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