I was set to run a marathon, then my doctor found highly precancerous cells

Erringer Helbling

Erringer HelblingA goddess representing wisdom and strength, Athena provides an overwhelming presence in Greece and other parts of the world.

I first learned of Athena while attending The United States Military Academy and immediately wanted to learn more about how to be someone of wisdom and strength. Over the years, I looked for experiences to test my limits. Whether I was jumping out of airplanes during paratrooper school while in the Active Army, or working with novel space technologies, I have always enjoyed pushing myself and others to achieve what once seemed impossible. It shouldn’t surprise anyone then the story that follows.

This past January, I was visiting the Louvre Museum with my boyfriend, Brian. As we walked through a grand hall of statues, we noticed one of Pheidippides, the courier who inspired the marathon race today after running from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of victory. I joked to Brian, “The only marathon I would ever run is the original one.” So in that moment, we agreed to travel to Greece and run the authentic Athens Marathon in November.

Over the next several months, I trained all over the country. From the monuments in Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia’s “Rocky Steps”, to Oahu’s Diamond Head State Monument, I ran over 100 miles to prepare. Just weeks before the big day, I was feeling on top of the world, until I went in for a routine Pap smear.

When the doctor told me that I had highly precancerous cells and to schedule surgery as soon as possible, I was surprised. Nothing in my lifestyle had changed since my last screening. I was young, healthy, eating well and training for a marathon! I didn’t even consider a cancer diagnosis a possibility. I had even almost cancelled this checkup to schedule a training run.

After much thought, I decided to schedule my surgery immediately after returning from Greece. I couldn’t let anything stop me, because now this race meant much more to me than pushing my own limits.  It was now about running for those who can’t. I was going to run for those who are not as fortunate as I am to have caught cancer early.

Erringer HelblingIt was a rainy morning in Marathon, Greece, when we lined up to begin the race. Immediately after I started running, the rain faded and the sun began to shine. I remember running with people from all over the world around me, inspiring me. But the best highlight of inspiration was a local Greek girl cheering on the sidelines. When I ran by her, she held out an olive branch to me. As a I grabbed it from her, we exchanged smiles. Within this exchange, an unspoken deal was made that I would bring this olive branch to Athens for her. 

I felt so alive as I ran up the hills from Marathon to Athens. The elevation gain during the authentic Athens marathon of over 1,000 feet, so you can only imagine how my body felt at mile 20 after this climb. I felt like I had a ball and chain, resisting my every step forward as I ran.  But when I looked down at my right hand, I noticed the olive branch. After coming so far, I could not stop now.

After a grueling 6 miles, I saw the Panathenaic Stadium, where the finish line resided. With the olive branch in hand, I found a new energy and strode through the finish line! As I finished, I thought of every little girl with dreams of pushing their limits. I thought of how they deserve every opportunity to do so with no limitations. I thought of how this olive branch meant more to me than any other possession.

It was then that I realized that I didn’t run for those who couldn’t. I ran for those who still can.  I’m thankful that the Prevent Cancer Foundation® joined me on this journey, and I’m thankful that my routine checkup found and prevented cancer from spreading. I hope my story provides more awareness of the need to be proactive with cancer detection. With Athena’s strength and wisdom, anything is possible.