This 8-Year-Old Cancer Survivor Will Probably Beat You in a Marathon
by Erin Surette
Over there, across the gym at the Old Fields School, a prestigious all-girls campus in Baltimore County, stood ultramarathon champion and prolific all-around racer Mike Wardian. Beanpole skinny, ponytail slung back, still dressed in his sponsored Hoka gear, he milled about with the crowd shortly after winning first place overall in the NCR Trail Marathon. Another gold to add to his leprechaun’s ransom accrued over an accomplished lifetime.
Having volunteered at the race myself, I watched him as he talked to another age group award winner, who just ran his 26-plus miles in 3:32:00, as fast as his four and a half foot frame could carry him. In a gray hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants, with a gapped-tooth smile that is endearing in the way that only an 8-year-old can be, Nate Viands fit in perfectly. While most runners were “recovering” from their Turkey Trots a couple days before, on this cool and cloudy day in late November, this kid ran up and down the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail faster than any other entrant under the age of 19. So it would make sense he’d be chatting it up with the world record holder of running seven marathons on seven continents, in seven days.
Just one master talking to another.
As I watched this exchange, Nate’s grandfather leaned over the table towards me. “You know, that kid over there finished cancer treatment 15 months ago.”
This isn’t a story about running. Or rather, this isn’t just a story about running. In 1975, 13 in 100,000 children were diagnosed with cancer in the United States; by 2015, that incidence rate had increased to 19 per 100,000.1 Even as cure rates continue to improve, the incidence of children with cancer continues to increase. Nate Viands is one of those children.
A month before his fourth birthday, his parents, Danielle and Scott, made an appointment with his pediatrician because Nate had been having intermittent low-grade fevers and nosebleeds. That same afternoon, the pediatrician called Danielle: Nate’s bloodwork results were back. She wanted Danielle and Scott to take Nate to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for further testing. In a vertiginous whirl, Danielle left work, calling Scott on the way, and picked Nate up from preschool to take him to the ER.
That evening, the diagnosis was confirmed: Nate had pre-B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, a rapidly-progressing lymphoid cancer and the most common cancer of childhood.2 He needed to begin treatment immediately.
What do you do when your child is diagnosed with cancer? You cry. Maybe you’re angry, maybe the shock overcomes your anger. Maybe you just ask ‘why?’. Your vocabulary expands instantly to accommodate the subject that has inserted itself into your life uninvited. Your perspective sharpens. And then you face it head on, because there is no other way.
The Viands slept in Nate’s hospital room that first night. In the morning, Nate began his treatment with an intense multi-drug regimen that had difficult and serious side effects. He spent the next few weeks as an inpatient at CHOP; despite a release from the hospital, he needed to return on a near-daily basis for treatment. Luckily, the family lived close to the hospital; for many families, this is not the case.
After Nate completed induction chemotherapy, he was required to continue treatment for the next three years: this included consolidation chemotherapy, interim maintenance, delayed intensification, and, finally, maintenance. The maintenance cycles were less intense, though they still came with serious risks and side effects. Due to the suppression of his immune system by the chemotherapy, Nate had to avoid indoor public spaces to limit his exposure to life-threatening infections. So he went outdoors instead.
Scott and Danielle wanted to help Nate regain his strength, so Scott began taking Nate to a local park every day where he walked, climbed, and rode a scooter. Soon, Scott taught Nate to ride a skateboard, which became a shared passion between father and son.
Eventually, Scott started taking Nate along on his runs, with Nate riding his bike alongside. But one day in the summer of 2015, when Nate was 5, they arrived at the park and realized they had forgotten to load Nate’s bike into the car. Rather than return home for the bike, Nate decided he would run with Scott, and the two ran three miles together. That fall, after getting the go-ahead from his oncologist, Nate ran a half marathon. He had just turned 6.
Nate also began competing in cross country. This fall, he won the Cross Country Coaches National Youth Championships East Regional 2K cross country race for the boys’ 6-8 age group in a blazing 7:28, finishing 25 seconds ahead of second place. Two weeks later, he won the 2K race at Nationals in Louisville. A week after that, he ran his first marathon. Nate had expressed interest in running a marathon after completing his first half, so he and Scott decided to run the NCR Trail Marathon, a flat and fast race on the crushed limestone Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail in Sparks, MD, sponsored by the Baltimore Road Runners Club.
I first realized he was running the race when I was at the finish line, talking to race director Bart Rein.
“Did you see the 8-year-old kid who’s running the marathon today?” he asked me.
“How did that happen?”
He raised an eyebrow. “That’s a good question.”
I had all but forgotten hearing about the 8-year-old boy who was running until I saw him receive his award and resume his conversation with Wardian. And while his grandfather’s revelation about Nate’s cancer recovery surprised me, it also didn’t.
After all, chemotherapy may have weakened Nate’s body — at least, temporarily — but it didn’t weaken his competitive spirit or his love of movement, of the outdoors, of life. Nate is a remarkable kid, but his remarkableness, his resilience, is undoubtedly due in part to his parents, who have encouraged his strength and drive. I got the sense, in talking with Nate’s family, that he (and they) don’t see barriers where some of us might, and the lesson here is an important one: you’re capable of so much more than you think you are.
You might even be able to beat an 8-year-old in a marathon.
Childhood cancer research is significantly underfunded. If you are interested in making a donation to help support research efforts, consider making a donation to your local (or to any) children’s hospital. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia hosts the Parkway run (www.parkway.chop.edu) each fall and accepts general or team donations. Alex’s Lemonade Stand is another stellar charitable organization that currently funds over 1,000 clinical trials and research projects for childhood cancers.3 In addition, the Ronald McDonald house is an excellent charity that helps to house children and families who don’t live near a treatment center.
- Childhood cancer statistics: incidence rates over time. From the Curesearch website. https://curesearch.org/incidence-rates-over-time. Accessed November 30, 2018.
- 2014 childhood cancer statistics: 10 key facts. From the American Cancer Society website. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/2014-childhood-cancer-statistics-10-key-facts.html. Accessed November 30, 2018.
- ALSF childhood cancer research grants. From the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation website. https://www.alexslemonade.org/grants/search. Accessed December 18, 2018.