One step at a time
The story of how Amanda Campbell learned to run again
Published: Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 14:04
Track practice is fun for Amanda Campbell now.
The senior from Lockport, New York, once again enjoys training multiple hours each day for her seven-event heptathlon – even while working toward her master’s in business administration.
Assistant track coach Brad Fairchild, who works with Campbell daily, has noticed the change in her attitude, too.
“She views it as a positive,” he said. “In her event, you can look at it as seven chances to screw up or seven chances to get better and that’s the difference in her way of thinking.”
The results speak for themselves. Campbell has set multiple personal records this year and placed fifth in the heptathlon during last month’s Horizon League indoor championships.
“I’ve told the girls on our team, ‘I want to be here now,’ ” she said.
That wasn’t always the case.
But surviving cancer has a way of putting things in perspective.
Campbell knew something wasn’t right when her lymph nodes started to swell back in December of 2010. Three months of antibiotics hadn’t helped, but she still felt relatively normal, apart from the fact that she was gaining weight and always tired.
But all college kids go through that, she thought. Especially ones trying to balance internships, track practice and a health service administrations degree.
Over spring break that year, while most of her friends were in much warmer climates, Campbell felt the cold metal of a needle as her doctor took biopsies of her lymph nodes.
She was waiting on results when she drove to her apartment one day to find her parents, Dave and Diane, on her back doorstep. It was St. Patrick’s Day, but they weren’t there to celebrate.
They had asked the doctor to tell them the results first, so they could, in turn, tell their daughter. They learned the day before and drove to Detroit from upstate New York to tell Campbell she had cancer.
Diffuse sclerosing papillary thyroid cancer, to be exact. That particular type occurs in less than one percent of all thyroid cancer patients and is unique in that it spreads further and faster within the body.
“That’s my luck,” Campbell joked.
But she really does think she’s lucky.
“If you’re going to get cancer it’s the best kind to get,” she said. “It’s the most treatable.”
Her treatment options included surgery either in Detroit or back home in New York. She chose to stay in Michigan.
Although thyroid cancer has a high survival rate, Campbell’s surgery wasn’t without complications. What was supposed to take three to four hours took over eight as doctors removed 100 lymph nodes containing 26 tumors. Two more tumors were removed from her thyroid.
When she finally woke, Campbell was shocked to find she could barely speak.
During surgery, one of her vocal chords became paralyzed. Other parts of her body were affected, too. Even today, she has no feeling from her right elbow to her ear.
But she took it in stride. After all, she had a race to run in a few weeks.
Before surgery, Campbell joked with UDM track-and-field coach Guy Murray that she would run the open mile in the annual Detroit vs. Oakland duel at Titan Field April 9. The open mile is the last event of the day and is open to anyone from serious runners to children.
It’s not necessarily a competitive race, especially for an athlete.
“If someone told me to go run a mile I’d laugh and say, ‘Good joke,’ ” she said.
But for Campbell, it was more than a race.
“It meant proving myself,” she said.
And she did, but not without the help of her teammates.
As Campbell entered the final 100 meters, her teammates, decked out in pink “Kick the Crap out of Cancer” headbands, joined her and, arm-in-arm, crossed the finish line.
“It’s the best race I’ve had in my life,” said Kristie Ferrans, a member of last year’s team and one of Campbell’s roommates. “It proves how fast she conquered cancer. It was rough but she did it because she wanted it. Her willpower’s so strong.”
The one-year anniversary of Campbell’s open mile is only days away. The 2012 Detroit vs. Oakland duel is Saturday, April 7. She’ll most likely skip the open mile and stick to her regular events this year, which in itself is a sign of how far she’s come.
She earned her undergraduate diploma last May, completing her degree a year early. After a grueling treatment process (including spending the day after her 21st birthday quarantined because she was radioactive), Campbell was declared cancer-free in August.
Two small scars, one behind her right ear and one around the right side of her neck, serve as permanent reminders of what she went through, but Campbell said she doesn’t think about it often.
“I don’t talk about it or let it define me,” she said. “When you think about it, it’s made me so much stronger as a person. I finished my degree, fought cancer and started grad school all within the past year.”