Lynn Ellis, a runner from Tacoma, Washington, will be toeing the line this fall at the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon with the Project Purple team. It is commendable that Lynn has chosen to fundraise for a charity running team, but what is truly inspiring is how she has faced her own medical crisis. For years, Lynn battled a mystery illness that sapped her of her health, vitality, energy and robbed her of her love of running. When Lynn was in her mid 30s, she began facing a mysterious cluster of physical ailments. The fit and active math instructor embarked upon a long and exhausting journey through the medical system that would have caused many people to simply give up. Instead, Lynn persisted for years until she finally got answers.
Lynn Ellis grew up as the daughter of two college professors in upstate New York. As a teenager, she dabbled in different sports in high school, but was not committed to any one discipline. She was a cheerleader for a year. She ran track another year, but she did not really enjoy it. During college, Lynn began taking fitness classes. She found she really enjoyed aerobics and after college, she became an instructor.
In the year 2000, Lynn and her husband Danny moved from Wisconsin to Tacoma, Washington. The couple had been struggling with unexplained infertility. They had been unable to conceive and doctors could not give them a clear explanation as to why. Fortunately, Danny and Lynn were able to adopt. They are the proud parents of son Quinn, who is now 13 years old.
Lynn’s infertility issues were just the first hint that there was something physically wrong. In 2006, at the age of 36, Lynn broke her hip. She was diagnosed with osteoporosis but no one could tell her why she had such weak bones at such a young age.
Lynn began noticing that her energy levels were dropping. She became tired more easily than normal. Her doctors put her on medication to treat the osteoporosis, but Lynn felt that there was something underlying that no one had identified yet. The fatigue soon began interfering with her ability to live her life. She grew exhausted just walking across the campus where she taught college math. She struggled to make it up the stairs. Soon, it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning.
Lynn had been very thin for most of her life. She started gaining a distressing amount of weight, despite the fact that she was maintaining the same diet. In a matter of weeks, clothing became too tight for her to wear. She developed acne, which she had never had before. She noticed that she felt more emotional than she had previously.
Lynn became increasingly frustrated by the medical community who could not help her to make sense out of the mysterious cluster of symptoms she was experiencing. She took to watching medical mystery shows in hopes that something might give her a clue as to what was wrong. She did internet searched on rare illness, hoping to find some answers. She read something about cortisol levels and she suspected that hers were not normal. She asked her Nurse Practitioner to test her levels, and thankfully her request was heeded. The test showed that her cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, was three times the normal level. Lynn was given a referral to an endocrinologist for further evaluation. An MRI showed that Lynn had a 3 mm tumor called an adenoma on her pituitary gland. Finally, Lynn had an answer. She had Cushing’s Disease.
The pituitary gland is often called the “master gland” because it controls much of the hormone regulation within the body. The growth on Lynn’s pituitary gland was responsible for all of the symptoms she had been experiencing. The tumor, along with 2/3’s of Lynn’s pituitary gland, was removed by a complicated surgical procedure. The remaining portion of the pituitary is not functional and can no longer regulate any of the hormone levels in Lynn’s body. She has to take several different medications just so that she can survive. She takes human growth hormone, because her body does not produce any on its own. She takes thyroid medication. She takes hydrocortisone, because her body can no longer produce cortisol.
Cushing’s Disease has had a wide-ranging impact on Lynn’s life. Most people would have been completely overwhelmed by the complex cascade of symptoms that she has experienced. While dealing with her illness has been a struggle, Lynn has not let it keep her from participating in a sport that she has come to love. In 2010, as she was trying to unravel her medical crisis, Lynn began running. She would run at 5:30 in the morning, several days per week. She always thought she might like to run a 5k, but the thought seemed daunting. Lynn continued to run on her own in the wee hours of the morning, simply because she enjoyed it and it helped her to deal with the stress of her illness.
The year after she had her tumor removed, Lynn was feeling physically defeated by all of her medical problems. Then something happened that changed everything: The Boston Marathon bombing took place. This act of terrorism had a profound impact on runners all over the world. A few days after the bombing, Lynn went out for her first run in a very long time. She only made it a few blocks, but she kept at it, adding on distance with each outing. For Lynn, this simple act of lacing up her shoes and getting outside represented Lynn’s desire to run in solidarity with other runners all over the world for those affected by the bombing.
Lynn decided to try a 5k training program. Shen found that she felt best when she employed run/walk intervals. She learned of a Jeff Galloway-style training group in the Tacoma area and signed up to run with the group. Lynn ran her first half-marathon with her running group and was hooked on racing. Lynn has completed a number of 5ks, 10ks and half-marathons now. The 10k is Lynn’s favorite race distance, as she has difficulty recovering from longer events.
Of living with Cushing’s Disease, Lynn says, “It makes me feel like I am always trying to prove something to myself. Athletically, it makes me feel not as strong and not as fast as I used to be. On the other hand, I do not run to be the fastest. I consider it a victory to get out the door and run every time I do.”
With all that Lynn has been through personally, it would be perfectly understandable if all she could do was focus on managing her own illness. That is not Lynn’s nature, however, and she chooses to use her running to make a difference for others. Lynn was scrolling through a social media account one day and was shocked to learn that her former boss and friend, Steve Hayner, had been diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer.
This was the second time in recent months that a friend of Lynn’s had been diagnosed with the illness, so she knew that Pancreatic Cancer had an abysmally low survival rate. Lynn followed Steve’s on-line journal as he discussed his battle with the illness. Though she had not seen her friend in several years, she felt like she got to know him better as he discussed the process of dying. Steve was very open about giving his journey and Lynn felt like he gave his readers an inside view of his faith and how it affected his approach to death. Steve was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer in April of 2014 and passed away in January of 2015. Steve left behind a wife and three children.
Lynn felt helpless as she watched her friends fight Pancreatic Cancer. Though Lynn has dealt with more than her share of medical problems, her friends’ battles with Pancreatic Cancer affected her deeply. Until she watched them battle the disease, she had no idea what a frightening diagnosis it is. She felt that she needed to do something tangible to fight back against the disease that had affected two of her friends. She had many friends who had run for charities over the years, and she thought that joining the Project Purple Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll half-marathon team would provide her with the perfect avenue to feel like she was making a difference in the fight against Pancreatic Cancer. Even though running half-marathons is physically taxing for Lynn, she has chosen to run with the Project Purple Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-marathon team. Just as Lynn wanted to run in solidarity for the Boston Marathon bombing victims, now she wants to run in solidarity again Pancreatic Cancer. She will bring her fighting spirit to Denver as she runs to help beat Pancreatic Cancer. Please click on the link below to donate to Lynn’s Project Purple fundraising campaign.