Dennis Underwood Runs Chicago For Sister

Five-and-a-half years ago, Dennis Underwood was overweight and out of shape. His doctor told him that his blood sugar was ‘out of control’. He lacked energy and knew he was not feeling his best. He decided to join Weight Watchers, which helped him to shed 50 pounds in five months. As Dennis lost weight and started to gain energy, he became more active. Now Dennis is preparing to run his first marathon with Project Purple, honoring two special members of his family.

After hearing from his primary care physician that he needed to go on diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol medication, Dennis decided to make some lifestyle changes. After following a weight loss program with his wife, Dennis stopped taking all of his medications. The doctor was pleased with Dennis’s blood work at his next appointment, but was shocked to learn that Dennis had brought his numbers into the normal range through exercise and diet alone. Now, three years later, Dennis has successfully kept his weight down and his blood sugar and blood pressure numbers within healthy ranges.

As Dennis and his wife worked towards developing healthy habits, they began walking together. As fall turned to winter, Dennis dusted off the treadmill in his basement. He used the treadmill regularly but found himself getting bored with walking. He decided to try running a half-mile. When he was successful, he extended his running to a full mile. Eventually, he was able to run five miles. Dennis says, “The next thing I know, I was training for a half-marathon. What a feeling of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line!”

Dennis Running
Dennis Running

However, Dennis suffered a few setbacks. A few months after his race finish, Dennis underwent surgery to correct a hernia. Six weeks after his surgery, he was cleared to run, but then he found himself struggling with shoulder pain. Dennis completed two half-marathons over the next several months, but his shoulder prevented him from running at his best. He completed several months of physical therapy but finally had to have surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, remove bone spurs and repair a torn rotator cuff muscle.

Even after two surgeries and months of physical therapy, Dennis still found himself in pain. Unable to achieve a full range of motion, he had his neck checked. On December 23rd, 2015, he underwent an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) on his C5-C7 spine. In this surgery, an incision is made to the front of the throat. The disc is removed and replaced with a spacer bone graft. Next, the bones above and below the removed disc are fused together. Dennis’s surgeon told him that he had to give up running. The surgeon underestimated his patient, however. There was a cause much greater than himself that would push Dennis to get healthy enough to take on his biggest challenge yet.

Dennis Underwood racing
Dennis Underwood racing

Dennis’s Mom Faces Pancreatic Cancer

To understand Dennis’s motivation to run for Project Purple, we have to go back to September, 1991. Dennis’s mother, Joanne Underwood, was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. Joanne was told that her cancer had spread to her liver and colon and she only had six months to live. She tried a pill form of chemotherapy, but essentially lost the will to fight. She passed away months later in February, 1992.

Joanne Underwood
Joanne Underwood

Pancreatic Cancer Returns to Dennis’s Family

As difficult as it was to watch his mother battle pancreatic cancer, it was just as difficult when the disease revisited his family. Dennis’s sister, Debra Green, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. Dennis recalls, “She was so very hopeful that she would not experience the same outcome as mom. Her tumor was isolated to the pancreas.” Debra’s tumor was wrapped around a major artery in her pancreas, so surgery was not an immediate option. Her medical team hoped, however, that chemotherapy would shrink her tumor enough for surgery.

However, in February, 2016, Debra’s doctors decided to change her chemotherapy regimen following an unfavorable CT scan. Debra was hospitalized and told that her cancer had progressed and there was nothing the doctors could do to offer a cure. Essentially, Debra was advised to go home and prepare to die.

Dennis with his sister shortly after her diagnosis
Dennis with his sister shortly after her diagnosis

Complications for Debra

A second doctor who had checked in on Debra believed she had a bowel obstruction which might be removed via surgery. When the surgeon opened Debra up, he found that her cancer had spread. However, he was able to put in a colostomy bag to provide her with some comfort for the remainder of her days. Debra passed away just weeks later, on April 13, 2016, leaving behind her husband of 46 years and her son, as well as her extended family.

Though he did not realize it at the time, as Dennis looked back at the course of his mother’s and sister’s diagnostic process, he saw similarities in their experiences. Both women had sought medical attention for several months prior to receiving the news that they had pancreatic cancer. Both women had been diagnosed with diabetes. Both had blood work that was out of the normal range, with no explanation as to the cause. Finally, both women had lost considerable weight without trying.

Even though Dennis had been told that his running days were over, he felt that he had to do something in support of his sister as she battled pancreatic cancer. While he healed from his surgeries, he looked for a race that would benefit pancreatic cancer research and patients. The week before his sister passed away, Dennis was given the green light by his physician to start running again.

Enter Project Purple

With several half-marathons and 5ks under Dennis’s belt, Debra’s fight seemed like the perfect reason to attempt a full-marathon. Dennis signed on to run the Chicago Marathon with the Project Purple team. Remarkably, the only time he has ever run outside and not on the treadmill is during races.

Dennis’s goal is to finish the marathon in memory of his mother and his sister. He explains, “I know they will be right there with me every step I take. I also hope that someday researchers will find a way to screen for pancreatic cancer to detect it earlier and give more people a chance to survive.” Dennis is concerned about a possible genetic link that could cause the illness to manifest itself in other family members. He adds, “I don’t want to see anybody have to go through what we have gone through.”

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