The Race of His Life
Sept. 5, 2005
by Brian Beaky
Jon Hickey ran past the start/finish line, preparing himself for one more lap. How long had it been? He didn't know. How much farther did he have to go? He didn't know. With nothing else to do, he simply slapped one foot down in front of the other, again and again, forcing himself to focus on finishing this lap, finishing this race ... anything to take his mind off of the reality of the hospital room around him, the doctors and nurses with their scalpels and microscopes, and the rare form of cancer eating away at the cells in his forehead.
Prior to April of 2004, Jon Hickey was just like any other 20-year-old college student-athlete. He enjoyed spending time with his friends, studying political science, and competing on Saturdays for Washington's track and field and cross country teams. In fact, he was enjoying his most successful season to date, having logged the third-fastest indoor 5,000-meter time in UW history in March (14 minutes, 11.39 seconds), and placed ninth in the mile at the indoor conference championships.
The sophomore was preparing for May's Pac-10- and NCAA West Regional Championship meets, for which he was already qualified at the 5,000-meter distance. Nothing could prepare him for what he was about to endure.
"I had first noticed a little bump on my forehead in January of 2004, but I wasn't sure what it was. It was just a little red bump, so I figured it was probably nothing and left it alone," Hickey recalls. "When it was still there a couple of months later I figured it couldn't hurt to get it checked out."
Doctors at first informed Hickey that he had a small cyst, one which could be easily removed through minimally invasive surgery. When the surgery took longer than it should, Hickey suspected something was wrong.
"He started asking for tools that he didn't initially need, and was taking a lot longer than he had said he would," Hickey says. "I could tell something was going wrong."
Immediate testing confirmed the diagnosis -- Hickey had a rare form of skin cancer known as dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, a slow-growing cancer that accounts for less than one percent of all skin cancers. Hickey was shocked; his doctors were equally stunned.
"They told me that 40 is young to have this disease," Hickey says. "My doctor had never seen it in someone my age. He was baffled."
Because the specific type of cancer grows so slowly, doctors told Hickey that chemotherapy would not be an effective form of treatment. His best chance was a procedure called Mohs surgery, in which the doctor takes an initial tissue sample from the sarcoma, then examines the edges of the sample under the microscope. If there are cancerous cells visible around the tissue sample, the doctor returns to make a wider cut, continuing the process until no cancerous cells remain.
The surgery was long and difficult, requiring Hickey to remain awake for its entire 10-hour duration. Each cycle of taking and examining samples took an hour to complete, time during which Hickey had nothing to do but wait, and wonder.
"It was a pretty terrible experience," he says. "I was handling it pretty well at first, but by hour eight I was getting down a little bit. It was painful, it was long, and it was bloody. They'd take the sample, bandage up my head, then leave for an hour or so. Every time they'd come back I'd think it might be the last time, but then they'd put some anaesthetic on my head and do the whole thing again."
To prepare himself mentally, Hickey approached the procedure as a race -- each round of surgery was another lap, one more time around the track.
"It's kind of cheesy, but it really helped," he says. "Part of my sport is pushing through pain, so that's what I tried to think -- `It hurts now, but you'll get through it.' I knew if I just thought positive, the whole experience would be better."
By 7 p.m., doctors were confident they had removed all of the cancerous tissue. Because of the late hour and the length of the surgery, a planned skin graft to replace the removed tissue was postponed until the following day. The entire time from diagnosis to surgery had been only a month, but it had felt like a year to Hickey.
Upon returning home, Hickey was overcome with the desire to contribute somehow to cancer research, some means of repaying the debt he felt he owed as a cancer survivor. An imaginary race had helped him through his own experience, so it was natural that Hickey's first plans formed around the idea of an actual race, a Race Against Cancer.
"I knew that my own experience had been made easier by other people's past experiences, and by others' devotion to cancer research," he says. "So I wanted to find a way to give back to those people, and to help others who are going through similar experiences now, or will be in the future."
In just six weeks' time, Hickey booked a site for the race in his native Hanford, Wash., arranged sponsorship through his employer, Flour Hanford, and promoted the race through interviews with local newspapers and television stations.
"I was really just figuring it out as I went, because I had never really done anything like this before," he says. "One of my roommates had a Lance Armstrong Foundation `LIVESTRONG' bracelet, so I looked up the foundation online and decided it would be the perfect cause to donate the race proceeds to."
In August 2004 -- just four months after his initial diagnosis and three months after his surgery -- more than 150 competitors, dozens of volunteers and several local media members showed up for the first-annual Tri-Cities Race Against Cancer. More than $3,000 was raised for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a number Hickey reached again this past August with his second-annual affair.
Hickey says that in just two years, the race has already taken on a life of its own, with sponsors already competing for the right to attach their name to the third-annual event in 2006.
"It's really incredible," he says. "We actually had fewer competitors this year than we did in 2004, but ended up raising nearly the same amount of money because so many more people made individual donations. A lot of people are already really excited about next year."
Hickey, on the other hand, has learned to take life one day at a time. He made his own successful return to competition in the fall of 2004, running fourth on the squad at the Pac-10 Championships, and has his sights set this season on leading the UW men back to the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2003.
"I don't really have any personal goals," he says. " I just know that if I run well, it will help the team get to nationals, and that's my only motivation."
Jon Hickey crosses the start/finish line, and slows to a stop. This race is over, but a new life has begun.