Angela Sullivan thought her knee pain was running-related.
Three months later, the pain was still nagging at her. She knew then that it was more than a minor racing injury.
Doctors would later diagnose her with osteosarcoma, a common type of bone cancer.
As the 38-year-old recovered from the amputation of her left leg and chemotherapy treatments, she set her sights on the Lincoln Marathon. But the discovery of tumors on Sullivan’s lungs will leave her sidelined for the May 5 race. Literally.
The Kentucky woman will still be at this year’s marathon as a volunteer, either cheering runners on at an aid station or draping medals over the necks of finishers.
The race, which offers full- and half-marathon distances, starts on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus and ends on the 50-yard line inside Memorial Stadium. The race is a Boston qualifier.
Sullivan understands the hard work that goes into running, and she’ll be proud to see more than 10,000 people cross the finish line.
“Even though I can’t do it, I know I will again,” she said.
Sullivan first noticed knee pain after completing a 6-mile weighted run in August 2017. The pain was still lingering in November when she tackled an obstacle run.
The worst-case scenario, she imagined, was having torn something. That would mean more than a month without running.
“I don’t like to go a week without running,” Sullivan said. “Six weeks off seems like the worst possible thing I can imagine.”
In December, doctors had discovered a softball-sized tumor in her knee.
While waiting for biopsy results, Sullivan had to keep weight off her knee. Doctors were concerned about the cancer spreading and causing her femur to break. In February 2018, Sullivan went to the hospital with intense pain after slipping. Her femur snapped during an X-ray.
Much of her left leg was amputated.
“From the start, I knew I was going to end up with my leg amputated,” Sullivan said. “I don’t know how. Sometimes you just know things, and I knew.”
Sullivan started chemotherapy treatments. She finished her chemo regimen in September and turned her focus to working with her prosthesis. Sullivan, who’s in the National Guard, wants to be healthy enough to stay in the military.
Sign up for the Live Well Nebraska newsletter
Get the latest health headlines and inspiring stories straight to your inbox.
Sullivan learned about the Lincoln race through the National Guard. She’s tackled it three times before. The National Guard has partnered with the Lincoln race since the 1980s, race director Nancy Sutton said. Teams of guard members run the race, and other members act as volunteers at the event.
Sullivan walked a 5K on her prosthesis in February to mark her “ampuversary.”
“It might as well have been a marathon,” Sullivan said. “It was great, but at the same time, it reminded me how much farther I have to go.”
Sullivan still had her sights set on running the Lincoln Marathon. But in March, doctors found three new tumors on her lungs. She’s back to having regular chemotherapy treatments. A scan later this spring will reveal if medication is shrinking the tumors.
Some moments have been tougher than others, but Sullivan doesn’t dwell. Being upset and angry doesn’t help, she said.
“I would rather be as happy as I can, even while being realistic,” she said. “It’s just a choice I’ve made. I do have moments, and I let myself have them and then I move on.”
Sullivan said she’s being realistic about her outcome. She plans to “cram in as much life” as she can while she battles the disease. Some of the things she plans to “cram in” include running, learning French, traveling the globe and scuba diving.
One thing has been constant during Sullivan’s bout with cancer: her husband, David Sullivan. He’ll even be in Lincoln on race day, tackling the half-marathon. Though they typically run races together, Sullivan’s looking forward to greeting her “rock star” husband at the finish line with a medal.
Sullivan took on running in 2007 as a challenge. Each race made her want to achieve more. Could she run it faster? Could she handle a harder course? How else could she improve?
“It was a personal accomplishment,” she said. “I did it for me.”
The finish line — in Lincoln and elsewhere — is an uplifting place and a source of pride, Sullivan said. She says each race will be her last while she pounds the pavement, but running — or walking or crawling — across the finish makes her want to do it all over again.
Volunteers have been “vital” in helping her snag a medal at the end of the 26.2 miles, she said. The high-fives, smiles and funny posters keep Sullivan motivated. This year, she’s happy to join their ranks in Lincoln.
“I hope to lose my voice because I’m screaming at everybody,” Sullivan said. “Even if just one person has reached the point where they don’t want to keep going, I hope I’m the one who gives them the extra push they need to make it to the finish to reach their goal.”
Sutton, the race director, said runners remember how volunteers cheer them on. The whole race is a volunteer effort — a crew of about 2,4000 help with the event — she said.
“We could not put this race on without volunteers,” Sutton said.
Sullivan wants runners to remember to have fun on the Lincoln course. Enjoy every moment, even the bad ones. Her motto, borrowed from Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” is to “just keep swimming.” She would sing it to herself on the race course. Now she reminds herself of it as she adjusts to life as an amputee.
“Don’t take things for granted, that’s for sure,” Sullivan said. “You just have to stop finding excuses for not doing the things you want to do. You may not have the opportunity to do them later.”
A roundup of inspirational stories from Midlanders with heart
There's the woman with MS who runs despite her diagnosis. The 7-year-old born without his left hand who plays baseball just like the other kids his age. The refugee who turned to Zumba to help her recover from cancer treatments. Check out their inspiring stories and others below.