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A Cancer Survivor Finds Her Calling

Libby Mongue-Wymore runs in an urban setting

Libby Mongue-Wymore of Vancouver, WA, has faced a number of obstacles that would keep many people on the couch. In middle school she was diagnosed with ankle tarsal coalition, a condition that makes running painful and excused her from participating in PE growing up. At age 20, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. At that time, she was a busy college student. It seemed normal that she was exhausted while taking 20 credits, working part time and volunteering for 4H and Kiwanis. But she had other odd symptoms, like gurgling when she swallowed.

A battery of tests revealed that Mongue-Wymore had two tumors above her collarbone the size of golf balls. Another baseball-sized tumor was found in her chest. She underwent chemotherapy for four months along with 17 doses of radiation. She has been in remission since July 2001.

And, starting 10 years ago, she began running a race every single month. Neither physical barriers nor COVID have stopped her from continuing her race streak (now virtual) and fighting for positive change as a volunteer and advocate for cancer research.

We sat down with Mongue-Wymore over the phone to learn more about her story.

A photo album shows Mongue-Wymore receiving treatment for cancer

How has cancer affected your outlook on life?

I was a very shy person before all of this. It’s amazing that once you have to show your body to strangers you don't know, or walk around in public with no hair or eyebrows, you start to open up a little more.

There was no guarantee I would still get to be here. People with the same type of cancer I had have relapsed and had stem cell transplants. It’s the random luck of the draw that it's been 19 years and I’ve hit remission. I look at that opportunity and I don’t want to waste it.

Even with bad ankles and the heart and lung damage I have from my cancer treatment, I appreciate every day. I’m a pretty relaxed and happy person. I don’t let things get me down. I won’t say that during COVID I haven’t had my moments. But I find my focus one step at a time and keep plugging along. That’s just kind of how I roll.

Mongue Wymore on a run

How did you go from surviving cancer to completing a race each month?

Originally, I was not a runner. I was diagnosed with tarsal coalition in middle school, which is where joints in your ankle bones fuse together. It made it difficult to be physically active, and doctors told me to be careful. So I didn’t do a whole lot activity-wise. I even had exemptions for participating in PE.

About a few months before I turned 30, I learned about Cancer to 5K, a training program for cancer survivors located in nine cities on the east coast. They were going to do a 5K season with a round of virtual training for at-home runners. I signed up and made a goal to run my first 5K.

I thought I was going to die at first, but I actually enjoyed it! I’m not super fast but I keep a good, even pace. From there I decided to do a race each month. I started with the 5K, then branched out to 10K, 15K, then a half marathon. I just kept plugging along with races. Once you achieve one goal it’s like, OK, I know I can do that distance now.

Why run a race per month?

I’m personally competitive when it comes to keeping my streak going. And I’ve met so many people through racing. I’ve chatted with other cancer survivors and made friends with perfect strangers.

It’s a cool experience to do races and support other people. My friends joke that I’m a sherpa because I’ve probably gotten five friends through their first half marathon. They’ll tell me to leave them behind and I say I don’t care what your pace is, we're going to make sure you cross the finish line. That experience is very cool. Now my races are virtual, which I didn’t think I would do before, but I want to help these race companies survive. I’ve supported a bunch of local ones since the pandemic started and have continued my streak that way. I joined an online DetermiNation challenge to virtually run across America. I did 70 miles in a week in honor of my uncle, who passed away from brain cancer at age 70. It was one of the highest mileage weeks I’ve ever run. I turned 40 this year and decided I’d do 40 miles that weekend.

Mongue Wymore is fitted for Hoka Bondi shoes at Fleet Feet

Does your ankle condition still bother you?

About three years into running, my orthopedist told me I'm destroying my ankle bones from running, but I could still race if I walked. So I started race walking. My shins felt like they were on fire at first, but I watched videos and kept practicing. When running, on a good day I could run a half in 2:50 to 3:00. With speed walking I could still hit 3:15.

When I was training for Hood to Coast, a relay in Oregon, I went to Fleet Feet and told them that I needed a shoe with a lot of cushion to get me through the race. It was there that I was introduced to HOKAs and became a Bondi believer. I can run in them but I do try to limit my running to protect my ankles and keep me going long term.

What would you tell someone who wants to start running but doesn’t think they can do it?

Don’t be afraid. I was afraid I would be judged, and that is not the case. People are very supportive. Nobody is judging, and in fact, people will push you along if you need support. Getting that endorphin rush after you push yourself feels so good.

How and why did you start volunteering with the American Cancer Society?

I was treated in a pediatric oncology clinic, so I spent a lot of time around little kids even though I was 20. There’s never a good cancer to get, but Hodgkin's Lymphoma has a higher cure rate than many other types of cancer. I was around all the younger kids while they went through treatment and many of them had a rougher go at it than I did. It made me want to fight back and give back. I knew that some weren’t going to make it to the end.

Mongue Wymore sets up luminaria bags at Relay for Life

I had only just finished my treatment, and barely had hair on my head when I attended my first Relay for Life event at college. Relay for Life is a 24-hour team event put on through the American Cancer Society. Team members take turns going around the track for 24 hours with activities going on all throughout the day and night.

At these events they have luminarias that line the school track. Candles are placed in white bags decorated with names and photos of people who have been touched by cancer or lost to cancer. As I walked the track, reading all of these names, it truly hit me that I had just been through.

For me, a lot of the treatment was survival mode, just doing what I could to get through each day, 24 hours at a time. At that moment it hit me that one of these white bags could have been in memory of me.

Mongue Wymore holds a luminaria bag

Why did you become a cancer research advocate after that?

I wanted to help out after that. I thought, this is my calling. I found out about the local Relay for Life in Clark County, WA and have been volunteering since then. In 2001, I started as a team captain and in 2006 I had the opportunity to go to Washington DC as a volunteer and meet with legislators about research funding. Pre-cancer, meeting with legislators and sharing my story would have terrified me. But now I see that sharing stories does make a difference.

I’ve been a volunteer for cancer-related legislation like the Affordable Care Act and indoor smoking laws. Because of new research, people diagnosed with the same cancer I had now don’t get radiation because it increases the risk of other types of cancers. Over 19 years since I had cancer, research has improved the cure rate as well as the long term side effects. That’s amazing.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.]

By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for over 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.

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