Life after cancer: The story of marathon runner Mike Ruth
Mike Ruth didn’t actually know anything was wrong. He went to the Emergency department at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula just to address the discomfort in his ear, which felt plugged, possibly from swimming in the pool at his apartment complex in Pacific Grove.
Emergency physician Dr. Sean McRoberts cleared up the congestion in Ruth’s ear but, upon further examination, he noticed a suspicious lesion in the back left side of Ruth’s mouth. Subsequent tests confirmed cancer.
At the age of 68, Ruth underwent surgery at Stanford last October, after which a feeding tube was inserted directly into his stomach, through his abdomen, to nourish him while his treatment continued and his mouth healed. He returned home to continue his care at Community Hospital.
Today, Mike Ruth is, above all, grateful. For his job at CSU Monterey Bay, where he serves as a workstation technician. For his physical fitness that has enabled him to run more 26.2-mile marathons than he can remember. For every member of the medical team at Community Hospital who got him through oral cancer and helped restore his health in time to complete the Los Angeles Marathon on March 20. Despite the fact that he was still wearing a feeding tube.
Two months before he laced up his running shoes and took his place at the starting line, Mike Ruth was completing six weeks of radiation treatments, five days a week at Community Hospital.
“I always looked forward to my appointments with my radiation oncologist, Dr. Patrick Feehan," said Ruth, "because he was so kind, and he supported my emotional and my physical health. And I appreciate the radiation oncology team at the hospital because they were such a great group of people to have helping me. They were always friendly, offering me apple juice and encouragement.”
Rather than bemoaning his radiation treatments, Ruth was grateful he didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy.
Road to Recovery
Born and raised in Bakersfield, Mike Ruth took up running in the heat of the Central Valley in an era when road races were just getting underway. A math major at CSU Bakersfield, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1976 and then enrolled at San Francisco State to train in computer programing before completing an MBA, with an emphasis in Management, from Golden Gate University. After competing in the legendary Bay to Breakers road race across San Francisco, Ruth thought he might be ready to run a marathon. His completed his first, the San Francisco Marathon, in 1983.
“I felt such an amazing sense of accomplishment in coming across the finish line after 26.2 miles,” says Ruth. “And, in becoming part of a community driven by athletic spirit and ability, that’s all I needed to inspire me to keep running marathons.”
Mike Ruth was enjoying a healthy, active, athletic life right up until the moment he was diagnosed with cancer.
“No one really knows what caused the cancer,” he says, “but what I do know is how grateful I am to everyone who has helped me heal and resume my running life.” The first time he ran the Los Angeles Marathon was in 1988. During his cancer journey, he couldn’t imagine ever getting to do it again, but he signed up anyway, as a “life after cancer” goal. And nothing, not even a feeding tube, was going to get in his way.
“I really wasn’t sure I’d make it to the finish line, but with all the support and encouragement I received along the way, I forgot about cancer and about that feeding tube, and was able to cross the line and receive that big medal.”
—Mike Ruth, cancer patient
Ruth was looking forward to running this year’s Big Sur International Marathon 30 days later, without his feeding tube, but he was sidelined by an injured foot. Instead, he elected to sit out the race and let his foot heal while he searches for another marathon.
In the meantime, he’s focused on his continued recovery, as he works to rebuild his strength and stamina. Mostly, he’s grateful for the support system he had in his family and among the staff at Community Hospital, and for the opportunity to return to his active life.
“It’s a big emotional boost for me, especially after my surgery and all that radiation treatment,” he says, “to be able to cross the finish line of a marathon again. I’ve actually been able to let go of seeking my personal best and any other goals, and just focus on finishing. That’s a great goal, in itself.”