Alive and Running: Cancer Survivor Runs for Strength

Lia Bernstein of Berkeley didn't finish first in last Sunday's San Francisco Marathon, but she was a big winner anyway.

She beat her previous best time by 16 seconds. More important, she raised more than $1,700 for brain cancer research as captain of the National Brain Tumor Foundation Team.

Most important of all is the fact she's still here. She's been battling an inoperable malignant brain tumor since 1997.

When she was diagnosed, her doctor told her she had only eight months to live. He also told her to give up physical activity to conserve her strength.

"Instead, I listened to myself, believed in myself, and told him he was wrong," she said.

Focusing on the Road Ahead

That's when she started running marathons.

"I needed to hang on to anything that would build my mental strength for the road ahead," she said. "Sure, there are days when my energy wavers dramatically because of exhaustion, pain, or side effects from the chemo. But the pure joy I find in physical exercise keeps me going."

Those so-called "side effects" include seizures, nausea, hair loss, heart palpitations and vomiting. Sometimes the pain is so great, every muscle in her body goes into spasm, and all she can do is wait it out.

At other times, the nerve endings on her skin become so sensitive, even wearing a T-shirt is sheer agony.

The cancer has affected every part of her life. Getting sick is terribly expensive, even if you have insurance. And she was forced to give up a promising career as a special ed teacher because she couldn't make plans longer than six months ahead.

It's also made her shy about exploring romantic relationships. "I feel like 'Who would want to take this on?'" she said.

In spite of all this, I have never met anyone with less self-pity.

"Compared to somebody who's bed-bound, tied to an IV all the time, what do I have to complain about?" she said. "There are times when I feel like I've got a bad deal; but then again, I've been around a lot longer than I was told I was going to be."

True Friends

It's at times like this when you find out who your friends are. Some people have dropped away.

"I haven't been able to show up at their parties because I was sick, so they finally stopped inviting me," she said. "I know it's not personal, but you still want to be invited, even if you can't make it."

On the other hand, some people have turned out to be true friends, including her co-workers at TitleNine, a women's sports apparel company in Emeryville.

"They've been great. Instead of my having to call in sick, they allow me to come in whenever I want, even if it's only for an hour or two. They say I'm good for morale. Some have offered to take me back and forth to my chemo treatments. Others come by and bring me groceries."

Stop and Smell the Flowers

Now that the marathon is over, she'll increase her chemotherapy because the doctors have discovered a couple of spots on her left lung. But she'll keep running.

"I appreciate each breath, every blister, each drop of sweat, every smile. If one sees life as a foot race and the finish line as the end, what's the point of rushing to the finish line? Think about the amazing fact that I'm still alive and running: How cool is that?"

If you'd like to join Lia's team and contribute to brain tumor research in her name, send a check to the National Brain Tumor Foundation, 22 Battery St., Suite 612, San Francisco, CA 94111-5520; log on to; or call 800-934-2873.

Then slow down and smell the flowers. As Lia says, "Why should it take a dramatic disease to make us appreciate life?"

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