"There is no better form of healing than movement."

By Isabella de la Houssaye as told to Faith Brar
October 29, 2018
Photo: Isabella de la Houssaye

I grew up in Southwest Louisiana. Exercise isn't really a part of people's lives in the Cajun world, but I always had this unnerving urge to move. Ever since I can remember, moving my body every day in some way was a priority. I taught aerobics in college and then went on to become a yoga teacher in law school. If you needed that extra push to make it to the gym, I was your girl.

When I moved to New York after I finished school and became a lawyer on Wall Street, I began working crazy-long hours, seven days a week. Still, I always found the time to go for a long run, swim, or bike ride to make up for all the time I spent sitting behind a desk or in meetings. (Related: 3 Stretches That Combat "Desk Body")

That was my life for the next 20 years-and then I hit 40. You could say I was having a midlife crisis, but I found myself wondering what I was doing with my life. I was a mother to five beautiful children. I had a successful career and a loving husband-but who was I? What was I doing that made me different or exceptional compared to everyone else? After a lot of reflection, I realized that the one constant in my life had been my passion for getting outside, being one with nature, and pushing my body out of its comfort zone both physically and mentally.

It was after this epiphany (if you want to call it that), that I got into racing. My first event ever was a triathlon in 2006 and it opened up this whole new world for me. I had caught the racing bug and couldn't shake it off. Given the fact that I had already been super active my whole life, I had no intention of starting slow-that's just not my personality. Following my triathlon, I signed up for a 10K, then did a half marathon the next day. I kept showing up for increasingly difficult endurance events after that. Before I knew it, I had signed up for a couple marathons and also did my first Ironman that year. The year after, I went on to do a 250 km ultramarathon run in Costa Rica. (Related: This Is the Grueling Reality of What It's Like to Run an Ultramarathon)

Photo: Isabella de la Houssaye

Over the past decade, I've done upwards of 70 marathons, 10 Ironmans, and 20 ultramarathons. I've run 170 km across the Sahara in Libya, run across South Africa, and climbed Everest. I've constantly pushed my body to the limit and wondered: How far could I really run? How long could I really go without sleep? Could I run these long distances without navigation? In all, I've learned there's really nothing your body can't do. (Check out these insane ultramarathons you have to see to believe.)

As time has passed, I've continued to set new goals. Every time I had to travel for work, I'd see what endurance events were taking place in the area so I had something to train for and look forward to. A couple of years ago, after traveling nonstop, I decided to tally how many states I'd run marathons in. At the time, I'd already covered 25-so I set a goal to run 25 more in the states I hadn't run in yet. I wanted to finish my 50th marathon this year in Hawaii as part of the Ironman World Championships in Kona.

I was just a couple marathons away from my goal in January 2018 when I began having tremendous pain in my sacrum. Not only that, but my right leg just wasn't doing what I was telling it to do. After going in to see my doctor, I was told I probably had a sports injury but that they were going to do an ultrasound just to be safe. Not only was my sacrum fractured (which was causing my leg to act up), but I had cancerous growths all over my body. An MRI revealed that, in fact, I had a seven-centimeter tumor in my left lung and another seven-centimeter tumor in my sacrum that had caused my bones to break. There was a tumor around my sternum. There were six small tumors in my brain, and tumors in my adrenal gland, lymph nodes, and pelvis. A month later, I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and life as I knew it changed forever.

Photo: Isabella de la Houssaye

The thing that scared me the most about my diagnosis was the idea that I'd never be able to run again. The month that I spent waiting for a diagnosis, the pain in my back became so debilitating that I could no longer walk and was bedridden. While I couldn't resort to exercise as an outlet for the frustration and hopelessness I was feeling, I turned to yoga and meditation. I had never smoked, didn't drink alcohol, was extremely active, and ate clean-how and why was this happening to me? Slowly but surely, by practicing mindfulness, I started coming to terms with the fact that I might lose my leg, might not be able to walk or run, and might lose my life-but that I wasn't going to give up without putting up a fight.

Fast forward to February 10: Doctors found that I was viable for a form of chemotherapy treatment that directly targets the cancer in your body. I was immediately put on the treatment and, within 24 hours, my body began to feel like it was coming back to life. The pain in my back subsided substantially. Over the next couple of weeks, I regained my strength and could feel the treatment working. While my scans stayed the same, I knew that I could move around, walk, and maybe even run someday. (Related: How I Run 100-Mile Races with Type 1 Diabetes)

For the treatment, I have to take a pill every day and have an infusion done at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center every 21 days. As I got used to the drugs-they do come with their fair share of side effects-I also began doing alternative treatments like acupuncture and taking Chinese herbs used to treat lung cancer. I was able to forgo radiation, which allowed me to keep my hair and nails and saved me from that extra toll on my body. The moment I felt well enough to stand, I asked my doctors what I needed to do to make sure I stayed on track for my goal to run 50 marathons in 50 states. While moved by my enthusiasm, they warned me that the broken bones in my sacrum alone could take a year to heal and that I should only be as mobile and my pain lets me.

For some reason, that didn't discourage me from grabbing walking sticks and taking a walk around the block the very next day. One block eventually turned into two and I worked my way up to 26 miles a day. In March, I set myself up with the goal of walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain with my son. The 500-mile pilgrimage takes about a month to complete. I knew that if I put my mind to it, I'd have the strength to complete it-and I did. It was an incredibly humbling and spiritual experience and made me realize that I was perfectly capable of running again even if, on paper, my body didn't seem capable of doing so. (Get a glimpse inside one runner's experience with another insanely difficult race, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.)

Photo: Isabella de la Houssaye

When I got back home, I did my first marathon since being diagnosed. It took me eight hours, but I did it. After that, I felt like I'd turned a corner. My scans showed that my cancer wasn't progressing anymore and that I was getting stronger. Even my doctors gave me the all-clear to do whatever made me happy. So I restarted my quest to finish my 50 marathons in 50 states. By July, I was running again and worked my way to an Ironman in Korea later that month. While I was nowhere near my personal best in terms of time, I proved to myself that my body was still capable of doing an Ironman. After reaching that milestone, I focused on training for Kona-and finally reached my goal of completing 50 marathons in 50 states on October 13. (Related: Surviving Cancer Led This Woman On a Quest to Find Wellness)

As for my cancer? I'll never be in remission. The drugs that I'm on are working, but this disease is smart. Eventually, it will find a way around the treatment. The longest time the treatment has prevented progression is 18 months-so the chances that I'll have to go back to the drawing board are very high. Accepting that reality, I've had to get my affairs in order. For example, one of my sons is 14 and I've already scheduled his SATs because I know that I probably won't be there to do it for him when the time comes. And while that breaks my heart and has the power to put me in a dark place, I remind myself that nobody is guaranteed a tomorrow-whether they're fighting cancer or not. (Related: Women Are Turning to Exercise to Help Them Reclaim Their Bodies After Cancer)

I try to remember how lucky I am that I am still able to do the things that I love every day, and that I was able to complete my goal of running 50 marathons in 50 states. I hope that when people read my story, they realize that there is no better form of healing than movement. Yes, it can be debilitating at first, especially after receiving a life-changing diagnosis. But once you get up, once you take that walk around the block, once you do that 10-second plank, you'll feel yourself get stronger. And you'll realize that this life is still worth living to the fullest-regardless of whether you have a couple months left or an entire lifetime.