On July 22, Evan Winograd, a sixth-year neurosurgery resident who also does brain tumor research, completed the infamous “Ironman” challenge in Lake Placid, NY, as part of NBTS’ new Gray Nation Endurance program.
Dr. Winograd “had never even run more than three miles (and even that was rare)” before July 2017. But after working with brain tumor patients at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY who inspired him with the strength and grace in which they endured their diagnosis and treatment, he’s since become “hooked” on, and likes to honor patients through, endurance challenges. He has now completed, in addition to the full-length Ironman triathlon, two marathons, three half-marathons, and started training for an ultramarathon.
Dr. Winograd met NBTS staff at last year’s Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuro-Oncology and decided he wanted to get involved by using endurance efforts to raise funds and awareness the organization and cause. The following is a guest commentary on his recent Ironman endeavor.
The following version has been edited of length. A full version of this blog previously appeared on Dr. Winograd’s personal blog.
Endurance: the fact or power of enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.
People endure physical and emotional hardships every day, like the many who endure the trials and tribulations that come with a chronic illness or a cancer diagnosis.
During my medical training, I discovered the most incredible people and stories; inspiring and miraculous success stories as well as, unfortunately, harrowing experiences of grief and loss. But amongst all of this, I recognized the most incredible endurance athletes were, in fact, our patients.
I truly enjoy working with cancer patients because of how much THEY inspire ME. I used to be inspired by athletes and scientists that unearthed new, amazing feats or advances. Now, the most epic example of perseverance and persistence are the patients I meet on a daily basis. They attempt to thrive and, in doing so, they succeed in inspiring an entire village (or world) around them!
But I wish I didn’t have to meet another brain cancer patient. Yes, I plan to pursue a neurosurgical oncology fellowship focused on treating brain tumors, both benign and malignant. But if brain tumors were cured the day after I started my fellowship, I would be ecstatic. Here’s why:
It is currently the year 2018. We launched a Tesla toward Mars. There is a vaccine brewing (and succeeding) against multiple strains of HIV. There is even a new method to convert CO2 from the air to gasoline! Yet, the overall survival rate for patients diagnosed with a primary malignant brain tumor is just 35-percent. Good things are on the horizon with a number of new and different approaches being tested in the laboratory and clinical trials, but there is still work that needs to be done.
So, until that day comes I will do my best to aid that effort in any way possible.
Whether it be my own contributions to the biology or genetics of different brain tumors, the treatment of brain tumors, or the advocacy efforts for patients and raising funds and awareness, I plan to spare no sweat. I’ll lay it all on the line.
Hence my endurance efforts.
These began, after some reluctance for years prior, with a three-mile run. Then a mud run. Then a 15k. Then a trail run. An obstacle endurance course 13-miles long up and down ski hills. A half marathon. A full marathon. Another full marathon. An Ultra-Marathon. And finally, the Ironman.
And, I’ve learned several key lessons throughout this process.
“Endurance looks different on everyone.” I may have finished these races and earned medals, but many patients achieve far greater things simply by persisting through treatments and side effects, others through periods of depression or psychological disorders, and even others through life’s various hardships that remain entirely out of their control.
“Advocacy.” Although I may not be working in the hospital while I’m out on the course, my ability to spread the word, advocate, and continue the progress toward a cure does not need to stop. Having a pipette or microsurgical instruments in my hand doesn’t need to be my only way to contribute! For myself, these races are a way to feel closer to the patients and have also become a way to help to inspire more people to run not only for themselves, but for a cause. I wore my Gray Nation t-shirt with pride during my Ironman to complete the event. No better feeling than seeing that picture (above) after race day!
“No money? No problem.” Of course, charity/donations help research and clinical trials move forward and help new ideas transition from paper to bench to potential cures. But, if monetary contributions aren’t possible, there are still plenty of other ways to get involved!
“Strong has a different shape wherever you look.” Go watch an Ironman, a marathon, or experience a day in a cancer clinic and you will see the ultimate testament to human perseverance stride by you. Over, and over, and over again. It’s sad, at first, but it’s also uplifting, inspirational, and alters your perspective in the most important way.
“Warrior heart.” Cancer patients have the hearts of warriors. When a patient with a potentially terminal diagnosis sees you and says, “How are you doing?” it’s a reminder that their inner physical and emotional strength is monumental. Locally, a young boy with a terminal brain tumor started a Lego club at our Children’s Hospital and helped collect donations to make sure other children at the hospital had a way to escape their illnesses and create new, joyful experiences.
There are countless lessons out there. I could go on forever. Ultimately, my own endurance training endeavors have been a great way to gain perspective and remain grounded after a long day in the hospital. But they also give me an opportunity to pay a tribute, even in the smallest of ways, to those patients I care for that endure so much more.
So, yes, I’ve finally become an Ironman. But there are so many people out there that are exponentially stronger than iron.
Attribution: Evan Winograd
Endurance challenges like Spartan Races, Tough Mudders, IronMan, various half and full marathons, and ultramarathons are a great way to have fun, challenge yourself, and give back to a cause you care about, all at the same time. As such, National Brain Tumor Society has launched our Gray Nation Endurance program to partner with individuals looking to raise money by participating in an endurance event. Check out the program’s new website. If you have questions about getting involved in our Gray Nation Endurance program, contact Lauren Gainor at firstname.lastname@example.org or (617) 237-1758.