The Power of Endurance
Date: December 21, 2009
You don’t build a multibillion dollar real estate conglomerate by sitting still, but even David Kay admits his drive and energy level are beyond the pale. “I’ve always been an exercise maniac,” says the 43-year-old Virginian, who went from running a mile or two to competing in the Marine Corps Marathon in less than six weeks in 2006. After that Kay sought bigger fish, running a 50-mile ultramarathon in 2008, including 43 miles on what turned out to be a broken ankle suffered after he stepped in a hole. But a broken bone would mend. Of far greater concern was a small mole on his waist that rubbed up against his running shorts. The mole turned out to be melanoma; a follow-up sentinel-node
biopsy showed that small amounts of cancer had spread to his left groin.
Shocked and scared for himself and his family, Kay was introduced by a friend to Charles Balch, one of the world’s foremost melanoma experts and a surgical oncologist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. “The best thing was that he didn’t sugarcoat anything,” recalls Kay of their initial meeting. “He made my wife and me comfortable immediately from a factual standpoint. He didn’t talk about odds. He said individuals react differently. He related it to my running: ‘If you can run nearly 50 miles on a broken ankle, you’re different from an 80-year-old who smoked his whole life and then got diagnosed.’”
Balch gave Kay two main options: Do nothing and monitor the site regularly, or undergo a full groin dissection requiring a permanent movement of the hip flexor that Balch hoped would remove all the cancer, but could also end Kay’s running career.
Kay chose surgery. “I wanted to do the most aggressive thing I could,” he says. “I figured I was in the best shape of my life. I know I’m not invincible, but I had a very positive attitude.”
He would need every ounce of it. His first postsurgical steps were painful and awkward, the swelling around the site intense. But Kay soon made a fascinating discovery. Even though he had to struggle to run even a mile, “I found that when I ran, the swelling went way down.” Other activities such as swimming also eliminated the swelling for a time.
Under the watchful eye of Balch and surgical oncologist Suzanne Topalian, Kay resumed light training in May, though he was still undergoing chemotherapy. By that September he was back racing in a half-marathon. “I felt amazingly good. At the end of the race, my wife, Margaret, asked me, ‘How’s your leg?’ And I said, ‘You know what? It feels normal from a swelling viewpoint.’ And it was. A little swelling in the foot, but nothing I couldn’t deal with.”
Kay went on to run four marathons—including the prestigious New York Marathon—over the next 34 days. By his side stood his wife, who trained with him and ran alongside him for every race. “She is my rock and support system,” Kay says.
Impressed with the surgical results and Balch’s continuing friendship and counsel, Kay and his wife decided to support a lecture series under Balch’s direction. “Dr. Balch and Dr. Topalian never asked for the support. I decided to do it,” says Kay, who volunteered for a melanoma vaccine clinical trial and runs marathons for the fundraising group ‘Miles for Melanoma’ for the same reason. “If I can help another person in some way, then great.”
To make an appointment with the
Johns Hopkins Melanoma Program,