Jack Knox: Cancer-stricken mom feels the love and runs a marathon

Jack Knox mugshot genericDozens of hand-made signs dotted the 10-kilometre trail ringing Elk and Beaver lakes Friday.

“You can do it.”

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“Run, Lise, run.”

“You’ve got this, Lise”

“Feel the love.”

Then there was the edgier “[Bleep] Trump” with the U.S. president’s name crossed out and the word “cancer” written in.

Right, that’s why Lise Berube was running down this path. The 38-year-old mother of two has stage-four cancer, just finished five rounds of radiation on her brain and is soon to start a new combination of chemotherapy drugs — a good time, she reasoned, to attempt her first full marathon.

She completed it, too, four laps of the lakes plus a couple of kilometres to bring the distance to the regulation 42.2 km. Actually, they misjudged things a bit, so when Berube hit the makeshift tape held by her children Benoit, 6, and Maelle, 4, she and good friend Grace Lore had run 44.4. Berube said those last two kilometres hurt the most.

But then, fate has given her experience with hurt. The question is: How does a young mother, or anyone, respond with such a life-affirming effort when struck by the kind of random cruel blow that would cause many of us to crumble?

Berube, who works for Island Health, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. At the beginning of 2019, she discovered the disease had metastasized to her heart and lungs. The diagnosis came after Berube, who describes herself as a casual recreational runner, had completed a couple of half marathons in the fall. “I noticed in the second one that my breathing was laboured. That was my first inkling that something was off.”

More tough news came at the end of this February, when a CT scan showed a progression of cancer in her lungs and spots on her brain. Her response was to ask Lore to join her in signing up for October’s Goodlife Fitness Victoria Marathon.

“I googled ‘how to run a marathon’ and printed off a training schedule.”

Last Sunday, a combination of coronavirus uncertainty and the trajectory of her treatment caused Berube to change plans.

“I don’t know how I’ll be feeling after the next round of chemotherapy drugs,” she said.

As it is, she has good days and bad.

So, instead of the big fall marathon, she and Lore would run their own race Friday, using it as a fundraiser for the Callanish Society, a small Vancouver-based non-profit that supports people living with and dying from cancer. Sure, said the ever-game Lore, who called the chance to spend trail time with her friend “a gift.”

It was a COVID-rules marathon, just Berube and a 10-feet-away Lore, with a couple of friends joining for parts of the route. Other friends posted those trailside signs (given the demographic of their peer group, many of the messages were on flattened diaper boxes) but then mostly stayed away.

Park users who stumbled across the run were gobsmacked when they learned what was happening.

“That’s so heartbreaking and inspirational,” a young mother said, putting into words what many were feeling.

In the end, Berube found the marathon hard, but easier than expected.

“Definitely easier than living with stage-four cancer.”

The post-run scene was pure joy, a scattering of distanced onlookers cheering as Berube beamed happily, Maelle in her lap, family dog Lucky licking her face while husband Chris Brandt found her a bottle of water.

Victoria Goodlife Marathon race director Cathy Noel, who had caught wind of Friday’s run, showed up with medals for the runners.

Having blown past the initial goal of raising $4,200 for Callanish, Berube reset the target to $42,000; the total had topped $30,000 by the time she had completed the marathon distance in a highly respectable time of four hours, 23 minutes. (To learn more and to donate, go to callanish.org.)

What an accomplishment for someone who says that even three months ago, she had no desire to tackle a full marathon. That she chose to do so, to respond this way, didn’t shock her husband, though.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” said Brandt. “It fits.”

Lore spoke in similar terms: “She’s bold and courageous and positive and energetic and she’s like that in all aspects of her life.”

Berube herself paused a second before saying why she chose this path: “It’s about doing what you can while you have the time to do it, and appreciating your life while you have it, and just going for it while you can.”

jknox@timescolonist.com

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