Cancer won't stop this woman from finishing the Miami Marathon
Abdi Sanz hasn’t had an easy time of it.
Six years ago, the high school English teacher was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was 33.
Five years ago, the cancer spread to her brain.
Two years ago, she developed celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and other grains.
And last month, she learned she had aplastic anemia, a byproduct of chemotherapy and radiation that results in fatigue and shortness of breath.
Many might take to their beds. Not Sanz.
On Sunday, she will be one of the 25,000 or so corralled at the starting line to compete in the Fitbit Miami Marathon and Half Marathon. She’s not running. She’s walking — the entire 26.2-mile marathon.
“It’s been on my bucket list. Just because you have an autoimmune disease, I want to prove that you can do it,’’ said Sanz, a teacher at South Dade Senior High. “I’m going to do it, come hell or high water. I’m going to do it.’’
Sanz, now 39, is one of scores of cancer survivors who will run or walk in the full marathon (26.2 miles) or half marathon (13.1 miles) on Sunday. Team in Training, comprised of leukemia and lymphoma cancer survivors or those running for someone with the condition, has a dozen people who will participate in the race, which begins and ends at the AmericanAirlines Arena.
Other groups raise funds for cancer programs and research. Team Lifeline, with its nearly 400 runners/walkers donning blue-and-yellow shirts adorned with a photograph of the child they’re racing for, raises money for children with cancer to attend a special summer camp for free. Runners with Debbie’s Dream Foundation, started by Debbie Zelman, a Davie attorney and mother of three who has been battling stomach cancer, raise funds for stomach cancer research
And then there’s Omar Nelson, Ph.D., a 36-year-old assistant scientist at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami, who is running both the full and half marathon on the same day — 39.3 miles, a Miami marathon first. He’s doing it to run at least the same number of miles as his age, a tradition he began when he was 31.
He’s also running to raise funds for Sylvester — $3,200 raised to date, with a $10,000 goal. (To donate, click here.)
“I look for ways to inspire people to get running,’’ said Nelson, a native of Jamaica who trains with the Miami running store, iRun, and leads a monthly running group in Overtown, called One Love Run.
Inspiring others — that’s the theme of many of these marathon participants.
Bate Blair, 77, has completed 78 full marathons. In fact, he was one of the original two dozen or so runners who ran in Miami’s first marathon in the early 70s — before the current incarnation of the race, which began in January 2003.
He no longer runs the 26.2 miles; he race-walks the course with his daughter, Kathy Gonzalez, 55, who teaches in the culinary arts program at Hialeah High.
They started about 10 years ago. Their goal: Complete a marathon in every state of the country.
They’re up to 41 states. The states they’ve yet to conquer are: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon and South Dakota.
“I’ve had kids who come back and visit me and ask, ‘What number are you on?’’’ says Gonzalez, who has had students run the race because of her. “I guess they feel, ‘If my teacher could do it ....”
They had a setback in the fall of 2016 when Blair was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
He had three options: Remove the prostate through surgery, radiate it or undergo High Intensity Focused Ultrasound, a new procedure the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2015 that uses high-heat ultrasound waves to burn off the tumor. It’s an outpatient procedure that doesn’t have the side effects of the surgery or radiation — higher risk for incontinence and sexual dysfunction.
The downside? It’s not fully covered by insurance or Medicare, leaving an out-of-pocket expense at between $15,000 and $20,000.
Blair had the procedure done last March. Shortly thereafter, the father-daughter duo began training and race-walked three marathons in 2017 — in Connecticut, Arizona and Nebraska.
Blair would not have been able to resume training so quickly if he had the surgery, said his physician, Dr. Dipen Parekh, professor and chair of the Department of Urology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
For Sanz, walking the full marathon is a way to show others they can fulfill their dreams even when life doesn’t cooperate.
She completed her first and only full marathon in 2006 in Gainesville when she was 27. She then moved onto half marathons, completing 16 since 2014, despite her illness.
She’s completed four Miami half marathons. Last year, when it was rainy and cold and her training companions backed out due to the weather, she walked the race anyway, befriending walkers from Team Lifeline and other groups along the way.
“I have a bald head, so people always look at me,’’ she said. “And I like to chat when I do the race.”
In August, she approached the founder of Team FDC, one of the Miami marathon training groups, about training with them to walk the 26.2 miles.
At first, Ralph Fernandez de Castro was wary, and wanted to make sure her doctors approved. They did. He was still hesitant.
“Her response was simple,’’ he said. “She said, ‘Ralph, when you are in a position that I’m in, and this is a bucket-list item, I’m going to do this. I’m going to find a way — with you, or without you.”
At that point, he paused.
“I had to say to myself, ‘Who am I to stop somebody from pursuing what they want to pursue?”’
Once the group decided she could train with them, several of the people decided they would forgo their training to train with her.
“As soon as people found out her story, two of three of them volunteered, saying I don’t have to complete another marathon,’’ Fernandez de Castro said. “I’ll be there for her.”
To Fernandez de Castro, Sanz’s quest has taught him something that’s much more than running: “The bigger lesson we walk away with is what we learn about each other, learn about life.”
Sanz says her mission comes down to three words: Hope. Faith. Strength.
“I believe in these so much that I had them tattooed on my arm,’’ she said. “If I have hope, then I have faith; and if I have faith in God, then I know He will give me the strength I need to endure whatever obstacles come my way.
“No matter what life throws your way, do not let circumstances stand in the way of you accomplishing whatever goal you set your mind to.”
Fitbit Miami Marathon and Half Marathon
When: 6 a.m. Sunday
Where: Race begins at AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd.
To register: Go to www.themiamimarathon.com