Eight months ago, Phillip Ramey was undergoing chemotherapy at the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington.
Last Sunday, he completed his first marathon, a grueling 26.2 miles that reminded him of what it was like to be diagnosed and treated for cancer and, step by step, how he set — and achieved his goal — to overcome it.
Ramey, a 36-year-old Hager Hill resident who serves as pastor of the Third Ave. Baptist Church in Prestonsburg and director of spirituality at Floyd County’s Riverview Healthcare, was diagnosed with testicular cancer on Oct. 22, 2014. He underwent surgery five days later and a second nine-hour surgery on Dec. 1, 2014. He started an intense chemotherapy treatment — traveling to Lexington five days a week for eight-hour treatments — in January 2014 and completed them in February.
“There’s no way to explain chemo,” he said. “There’s no describing it. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. That’s why when the gun went off I had no doubt I could finish the marathon. I had already endured chemo.”
He wasn’t the fastest runner at the Marshall Marathon in Huntington, W.Va., on Nov. 1. He ranked near the bottom in overall performance and among those of his same age and gender. But that did not matter to him at all.
He didn’t even care about the finisher’s medal he received.
“Probably the most discouraged I have ever been in my life was the day I was in the doctor’s office and the doctor looked at me and said, ‘You have cancer,’” Ramey said. “For the rest of the conversation, I was numb.”
After the appointment, he found his way to his vehicle and sat for several minutes trying to figure out how he would call and tell the news to his wife Melanie.
“I had all these horrible thoughts going through my head,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘What’s my wife going to do? What’s my daughter going to do? What’s my congregation going to do?’ Cancer already had me right there.”
The thoughts of dying from cancer and leaving behind the people he loves made him realize something.
“All of a sudden, I realized that I have too much to live for,” he said. “I decided that day, that I might have cancer, but cancer does not have me.”
That mindset helped him overcome cancer and complete the marathon.
Ramey was not a “serious runner” before he was diagnosed. The summer prior to his diagnosis, he had competed in a 5K and planned to participate in other races.
“I remember sitting in that chair at the Markey Cancer Center getting chemo wondering if I’d even be able to walk to the mailbox again,” Ramey said. “But then, I set a goal that I was going to go from chemo to marathon, 26.2 miles, in eight months.”
His wife supported him, but she was hesitant at first. She was afraid he would push too hard.
Ramey started training to run a few weeks after he completed chemotherapy. Initially, it took him 45 minutes to run a mile, but he did not give up on his goal.
Setting the goal was therapeutic for him. He envisioned it as a way to show Adalyn, his three-year old daughter, that she can overcome any obstacle that blocks her path in life.
Ramey competed in his second 5K race, the Ultimate 5K in Prestonsburg, about eight weeks after he completed chemotherapy. The following weekend, he competed in two other 5K races and he continued distance training. After the 5K, he trained until he could run a 10K, then continued practicing to reach the 13.1-mile, or half-marathon, mark. Then, he trained to reach 18.6 miles, or a 30K run, and set his goal to reach 20 miles in preparation for the marathon.
“If you set a goal and make a plan, you can reach it. I don’t care what it is,” he said, explaining that having cancer helped him meet his goal. “Had I not gone through this experience, there’s no way I could have ever finished the marathon. Chemo prepared me for the marathon, mentally.”
He found many similarities between cancer and marathon-running during the 26.2-mile race.
“Just like this marathon, when I started chemo, I thought, ‘Well, I can do this. This will be easy,’” he said. “Halfway through the chemo, and halfway through the marathon, I felt like giving up.”
He remembered what happened when, about halfway through his chemotherapy treatments, he told his wife he could not do it anymore.
“I just felt like dying,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ She grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘Yes. You can. You can do it. You’ve got to do it.’ When I got to the point in the marathon when I felt like I couldn’t go any further, I thought about that, and just like when I was getting chemo, I thought about how I couldn’t wait to get back home to see my little girl. I knew she was waiting for me at the finish line.”
He explained that both cancer and the marathon were physically taxing, but both were “more mental than physical.”
“There’s a tremendous physical aspect to both, chemotherapy and the marathon,” he said, “but it’s more mental than physical. It’s all about the mentality. You can either give up and go home or you can keep pressing until you cross the finish line.”
He shared a message for other people who are being treated for cancer.
“I think far too often, people have the wrong perspective of what it means to beat cancer,” he said. “People think you beat cancer by not dying, but that’s not the case at all because we’re all going to die. In reality, beating cancer has nothing to do with living or dying. You beat cancer when you don’t stop living, when you don’t let cancer keep you from getting up in the morning, from living and doing everything you enjoy doing. That’s how you beat cancer.”
He continued, “Every day that I get up and go to work, every time I kiss my wife, every time I hug my little girl, every sermon I preach and every song I sing, I beat cancer that much more.” Ramey received news from the doctor the week of the race that his cancer is in remission, but he wasn’t overjoyed. He said the joy came when he crossed that finish line.
He finished the race in a little less than 6.5 hours.
He created a YouTube video during the last leg of the race, dedicating his accomplishment to inspire others.
“This is for everybody that’s ever heard the words, ‘You have cancer,’” he said as he ran toward the finish line. “This is for those that’s got chemo pumping through their arms today. This is for everybody who has ever stood up in the face of adversity and had the fortitude to overcome. Here’s the finish line. Eight months. Stronger than cancer.”
The journey taught him many spiritual lessons as well.
“You never know how much faith you have until your faith is really tested,” he said. “I’m 36 years old. I’ve been preaching the gospel almost half of my life. I’ve preached all those years that [God’s] grace is sufficient. Now, I know his grace is sufficient. I’ve preached all those years that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Now, I know I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“It’s been quite a journey,” he said. “It feels like it’s all behind me now. When I crossed the finish line, I left it all behind me.” Ramey plans to compete in the Country Music Highway half-marathon in December, but he has no immediate plans to run a marathon again. Then again, he’s not one for telling himself he can’t do something.
“I probably won’t go any further than a half marathon for a while, but who knows?” he said. “I may do 100 marathons in my life time, but none of them will have the significance of this one. This one was more than a race. This was achieving a goal that seemed unattainable eight months ago.”
He thanked his family, his co-workers and congregation for their prayers and support over the past year.