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Running To Remember: The Story Of Cancer Survivor Matt Tullis05:49

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For childhood cancer survivor Matt Tullis, running brings back memories of , (Michael Dwyer/AP)closemore
For childhood cancer survivor Matt Tullis, running brings back memories of , (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Runners run for health. Some also do it to raise money for charity. Matt Tullis runs for these reasons and, he says, because it allows him to connect with ghosts. The professor at Ashland University in Ohio recently wrote an SB Nation article titled “The Ghosts I Run With” about his motivation for running: the people he met while being treated in a children’s cancer ward.

Tullis joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.

BL: Tell us about your childhood illness and about the people you met while you were being treated for it.

"Ultimately a lot of these kids -- who had the same disease that I did -- didn't survive."

Matt Tullis

And we had a summer camp that we did where we got to go hang out with our nurses and doctors outside the hospital, so I got to know a lot of these people really, really well. And then ultimately a lot of these kids — who had the same disease that I did — didn't survive. When I was diagnosed, the survival rate was right around 50 percent. It's close to 90 percent now because of advances in the medications. So, a lot of kids didn't make it.

BL: And those are some of the ghosts with whom you run. Tell me some of their stories.

MT: Well, the first one that I start out in the story was actually a nurse that I had. The nurse's name was Janet. I went into the hospital weighing about 130 pounds. And at one point I had dipped down to about 92 pounds while I was in the hospital. A lot of the times I couldn't eat because of the medicine. But the one thing I could eat would be a sausage biscuit from McDonald's and so she would bring one in almost every morning.

[sidebar title="The 2015 Boston Marathon" width="630" align="right"]Bill Littlefield writes about the 2015 Boston Marathon, which will be run Monday, two years after the bombings that killed three spectators and injured hundreds.[/sidebar]And after I was out of the hospital I had heard through the grapevine that she had cancer as well and then passed away. And so I've thought about her a lot for a long time but I could never think of her last name. And then one day I was on a run and it just kind of came to me. And I don't know where it came from but it just did.

Funny thing — the story ran on Wednesday of this week. And so I've already been in touch with Janet's daughter. We've been chatting on Facebook, and she's been sending me some stuff that her mom wrote when she was sick. And this person that I've thinking about for so long, we were that close all along and didn't even realize it.

BL: It's interesting. I've heard running described as beneficial in all sorts of ways but never before as a memory aid.

MT: It's funny because I was always the type of person who made fun of runners. I was like, "Why would you ever want to do that? What a horrible thing to make yourself do." And then I decided it was time to get into shape, so I went running and I had music in. So I'm just trucking along or whatever. But then one day I just decided to go out without music and it was amazing the way I was able to really focus on whatever it was that I wanted to think about and invariably what I think about is the time that I was sick.

BL: You have now reached the point where you run marathons but it may encourage folks who are thinking about starting running to learn how lousy you were at it when you first began.

[sidebar title="Remembering Lauren Hill" width="630" align="right"]Mount St. Joseph’s basketball player Lauren Hill passed away from terminal brain cancer last week. In her final months, Hill worked to promote cancer research.[/sidebar]It was pretty bad. The first time I went out I decided, "OK, I'm going to run to the interstate," which is about 1.25 miles from my house and it's all downhill too so there's no reason not to make it. And I got about .75 miles and I was so dead. And I just quit and turned around and walked back home. But I kept going out. I don't know why I kept going out.

And my wife, Alyssa, she saw an ad for Team in Training with Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She said, "I think you could probably do something like this." And I was like, "You know, I probably could." So I did a half marathon. And then I was like, "Well, I've done a half." And it wasn't a horrible experience, but it was really hard. But then I was like, "I've done a half, why not do a full marathon?" It just felt like something I had to do.

BL: You not only run to keep those you’ve lost alive, but as you put it, you write about them so that they may “live forever in words, a place that cancer can’t touch.” You even quote Tim O’Brien, who wrote, “stories can save us.” As you’ve put that into practice, do you feel it’s working?

MT: Yeah, I mean since the story went live I've had so many people who've read the story, and in many ways they all know about those people, like Melissa, who I mention, and Janet and my doctor, Dr. Alex Koufos. And once you've read about them — they'll stay with other people who might not have known them. And it's kind of a way for them to be out there and for more people to know about them than maybe ever even knew of them in life.

BL: You also mention running as one part of your strategy to stay healthy as long as you can for your children. Is the concern with staying healthy a direct result of your own childhood experience with cancer?

MT: Yeah, one of the things with long-term childhood cancer survivors is that the chemotherapy and the radiation, that is really bad stuff. It takes really bad stuff to kill cancer. Some of the drugs can cause other cancers and can really damage your heart, and other drugs can hurt your bone density and your lungs and all kinds of stuff like that. And once I had kids I started taking it a little bit more seriously and I started thinking, "It's not enough that I've had this time. I'm a little bit greedy — I want more time." I want to see my kids turn into adults and I want to have grandkids and I want to be around as long as I can.

BL: So how is your health these days?

MT: It's good. Like I say in the piece, I could slip on my shoes right now and go out for an 8-mile run without even thinking about it. If you had asked me that three years ago, I would have laughed at you and said you're insane.

This segment aired on April 18, 2015.

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