Tonia’s Pancreatic Cancer story

My name is Tonia Smith. I am a runner and a Pancreatic Cancer survivor. I am a 45-year-old married mother of two daughters. In 2013, I was in perhaps the best physical condition of my life. I ran three ultramarathons: a 50K in April, my first 100 mile race in July, followed by a 100K event in September.

At the finish of the Vermont 100, with my husband Stephen.
At the finish of the Vermont 100, with my husband Stephen.


Winning the Bear Chase 100k.
Crossing the finish line of the Bear Chase 100k with my kids.

In October of 2013, testing revealed what was described as a mass with “worrisome features” in my pancreas. On November 18, 2013, just seven weeks after winning the 100 K, I had surgery in which half of my pancreas, my spleen and 9 lymph nodes were removed. I was in the hospital recovering from surgery when I first heard the words Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma. I remember being shocked and horrified when I went looking for information about the disease. The abysmal survival rates astounded me. I thought that surely there had to be some mistake. I could not possibly have been diagnosed with this illness. I was young, healthy, fit, and with no known risk factors. I remember feeling very afraid, thinking that perhaps I would not get to see my children grow up. I had many sleepless nights where I would look at my husband and think, “We haven’t had enough time yet!”

Recovery from the surgery was difficult. I spent several days in the hospital. My incision went from my chest to my navel. I had wires and tubes attached to my body from head to toe.

In the Hospital
In the Hospital

When I was released, I began walking very slowly. The first couple of days, I only made it around the block. I walked increasingly longer distances, however, and a month after my surgery, I was given the green light by my doctor to start running again. I was ecstatic to lace up my shoes and get back out on the Colorado trails that I love so dearly.

First post-surgery run.
First post-surgery run.

I knew I would be starting chemotherapy in January, so I wanted to go into my treatment in the best physical condition possible. I ran as much as I could leading up to the start of chemotherapy. I was terrified of how the chemo would affect me, but I wanted to do everything possible to increase my odds of long-term survival. Between January 13, 2014 and June 16, 2014, I completed 18 rounds of chemotherapy. I was fortunate that I was able to continue running, though very slowly, throughout my treatment. It was not easy.  I was nauseous. I experienced difficulty with breathing. I had widespread body aches and I was extremely tired. Even though running was extremely challenging, maintaining that connection to my normal routine was therapeutic for me. Running is a big part of my identity and I was not ready to let it go.

During chemotherapy, I set a goal of running an ultramarathon that is held at the end of September. I wanted to make a statement to myself and the world that Pancreatic Cancer would not keep me from doing the things I loved to do.  I returned to the Bear Chase, which was the last race I had run prior to receiving my diagnosis. I ran the 50 mile event and finished in 9 hours and 35 minutes. I did not win, but it felt incredible to be officially back on the trails and competing in a race.

Midway through Bear Chase 50 mile race.
Midway through Bear Chase 50 mile race.
At the 50 mile finish.
At the 50 mile finish.

Finishing that race was such a powerful moment in my life. I had fought so hard through the months leading up to it, and this was my symbolic way of refusing to let Pancreatic Cancer dictate how I lived my life.

I recently celebrated becoming a one year Pancreatic Cancer survivor. This last year has been a very long journey for my family and me. The surgery and treatment were tough on all of us.  Pancreatic Cancer is a devastating diagnosis for not just the patient, but for the entire family. This year was extremely challenging for not only me, but also for my husband, my children and my parents. My body is different from what it was before I battled cancer, but I am fortunate that I am alive and doing well. I am very lucky that I have been given the gift of more time, and I try to never take a day for granted.  I never forget that while I am extremely fortunate to still be alive, so many wonderful and amazing people have been cruelly taken by this disease. As a Pancreatic Cancer survivor, I have wanted desperately to do something to make a positive impact in the lives of other fighters, survivors and the families who have been affected by Pancreatic Cancer. I am thrilled to be joining forces with Project Purple because the organization allows me to combine two of my passions, running and Pancreatic Cancer advocacy, to help make a difference.

This marks the first of many blog posts that I will be writing for Project Purple. This blog will cover a broad range of topics related to Pancreatic Cancer. Entries will tackle the multitude of issues that fighters and survivors face, as well as the issues that are unique to families and caregivers. I will be featuring the wonderful people who run for Project Purple. There will be blog entries that pertain to running, training and racing. I will also be highlighting the many ways in which Project Purple is working to help fund Pancreatic Cancer research and assist those whose lives have been impacted by Pancreatic Cancer.  I am very excited to join the Project Purple team as we work together to beat Pancreatic Cancer!


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