Tova Markowitz has been touched by pancreatic cancer more than once in her life. In October, 2009, her aunt, Gail Sterman, was diagnosed with the disease. She passed away just weeks later in December, 2009. “It was traumatic,” Tova recalls.” We just couldn’t believe it happened so quickly.” In 2011, her uncle, Larry Abrams, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Then, Tova’s father, Martin Abrams, discovered he had a premalignant pancreatic cyst that would have to be surgically removed. Tova learned that the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is abysmally low at just 6%. Though she herself has endured years of medical obstacles, she is currently training to run the New York City Marathon with the Project Purple team.
After losing two family members to pancreatic cancer, Tova’s father, Martin, became concerned about his own health. “My father believe that this could not be a coincidence. In fact, it is a good thing that Martin listened to his instincts. The Abrams family is of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, which increases their risk for developing pancreatic cancer. Martin went to Mt. Sinai hospital in New York City and entered a study. There, he had genetic testing and a CT scan. The scan showed pre-cancerous cells in his pancreas. Due to his increased risk of cancer, the doctors recommended he have a distal pancreatectomy. About 70%of his pancreas was removed proactively so that the premalignant cells would not turn into invasive carcinoma,” Tova explains. Martin was quite sick following his surgery. His blood sugar was very low and he was admitted to the hospital several times due to post-surgical complications. Fortunately, nearly two years after his surgery, Martin is doing well. Though his blood sugar is constantly monitored by a portable pump, he is able to fully live his life and he travels all over the world.
Tova is currently training to run the New York City Marathon with Project Purple because has seen first-hand how devastating pancreatic cancer is for the families who have been affected. What is truly remarkable about Tova, however, is that she has been engaged in a 15 year battle with Crohn’s Disease and colitis. It is a testament to the strength of her own human spirit that she is able to run at all, let alone tackle the marathon distance. For years, she has faced health problems that would have side-lined most people. Yet, despite the extreme difficulties, she has continued to run and has even completed three marathons.
Though she was not athletic as a young girl, she started running short distances for fun at the age of 25. When she turned 35, a friend suggested that they sign up for a half-marathon. Tova said, “Are you crazy? The farthest I run is 3 miles!” However, she soon agreed to train for the race with her friend, and finished her first half-marathon in just under 2 hours. While Tova had enjoyed running for quite some time, she now realized that she also loved racing. But training and racing for someone afflicted with Crohn’s and colitis is not easy. Tova has had to fight to stay on top of her illness so that she can live a normal life and pursue her passion for running.
Tova married her husband, Stuart, 19 years ago. She was healthy at the time and they were optimistic about their futures. Then, just prior to becoming pregnant with her son Eitan four years later, Tova was diagnosed with colitis. Colitis is inflammation of the lining of the colon. The hallmark symptom of the disease is persistent chronic diarrhea. In the early stages, her illness was not disabling. In fact, Tova was even able to run through her first pregnancy. When she got pregnant with her daughter Shoshana three years later, however, she was so sick that she was unable to leave her home.
Tova’s illness has impacted nearly every aspect of her life, from her family to her job. “The kids have learned to scope out where all of the bathrooms are when we go out in public. Unfortunately, their whole lives they have learned that they have to wait for mommy to go to the bathroom,” Tova explains. She has worried about the impact her illness has had on her children, but she is grateful for the support of her kids and her husband. She continues, “I am so fortunate. I have the most loving, caring, dedicated husband. He always puts me first before himself.”
The impact on her professional life has also been far-reaching. Tova is an elementary school reading specialist. She needs to be able to leave her classroom to use the bathroom at any time. Unfortunately, teachers cannot simply leave their pupils unattended. Tova says, “If I were a student, I would have a medical assistant. But as a teacher, I do not have access to help.” She adds, “I did not ask for this illness, but I rise to the challenges. There have been days that I have had to call in sick because I simply could not get into work. I have had to take intermittent leaves of absences. But I always remain confident in my abilities as a teacher.”
Over time, Tova’s symptoms worsened. The stress of being sick all of the time wore on her and her family. Finally, in 2014, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease is another form of inflammatory bowel disease. Whereas colitis is inflammation of the wall of the colon, Crohn’s can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract. In April, 2014, Tova had her colon and appendix surgically removed. Even though she had an ostomy bag following her surgery, Tova continued to run. Twelve weeks later, Tova’s ostomy was able to be reversed. Just four months after having her colon removed, Tova completed a marathon in 4 hours and 30 minutes. In many ways, she believes that this was the most enjoyable of all of her marathon experiences.
Tova’s Crohn’s and colitis has impacted other areas of her health. She has to take Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug, and Humira, a potent drug specifically designed to help with the inflammation caused by Crohn’s and colitis. She also has had to take high doses of prednisone long-term. Prednisone can weaken the bones and Tova suffered a fractured hip and femur as a result of having been on the medication.
Despite her ongoing health problems, one of the constants in Tova’s life has been running. Due to her illness, Tova has had to restart her running career three times over. “I don’t care about times any more. My motto now is ‘Just cross the start line’. I am going to get to the finish line in whatever time I get there.” Not only has running been emotionally therapeutic for Tova during her medical struggles, it has also helped to improve her overall health. In fact, her doctors now use running as a measuring stick for her health. They know that if she is not running, she is not feeling well. “The running is keeping me healthy, according to my doctors. Running has become my therapy. It is the one thing that I can actually control or manage throughout my illness.”
The surgery and medications have helped Tova immensely. Her digestive tract is much more predictable these days. Though she still lives with a chronic illness, she is better able to plan for and enjoy her life. Tova has found meaning in her involvement with running charities. She has run for a colitis charity previously, which she enjoyed. She feels that running for a cause she believes in makes her running more focused and meaningful. This year, she decided take her charity involvement in a new direction. When she was in Portland for a half-marathon, she met a woman who was running for Project Purple. Tova was intrigued by the idea of running for a pancreatic cancer charity because she has seen how the illness has affected her own family. Tova knows that her family is at increased risk for developing the illness, and she wonders if things would have turned out differently for her aunt and uncle if their cancers had been found at an earlier stage.
Please support Tova as she runs her fourth marathon with Project Purple in New York City by making a tax deductible donation to her fundraiser at the following link: