Cancer Won't Keep a Runner from the White Rock Marathon

He always loved running. Helped him clear his head.

If only Steve Damm could turn that trick now.

Unfortunately, a pair of New Balance shoes and 15 miles per week can't combat inoperable brain cancer. Though a two-time ('01 and '02) finisher of the Dallas White Rock Marathon, chances are Steve will never run again.

"Of the things I miss, running is at the top of the list," Steve says from his family's Frisco home last Wednesday, just hours after doctors revealed that the tumor at the base of his brain is again growing. "I used to go four miles, just to alleviate stress. Now there are days when I can't walk more than four feet."

With his condition deteriorating and a desperate round of chemotherapy coinciding with the one-year anniversary of his courageous fight, Steve's body won't be able to complete Sunday's Dallas White Rock Marathon. His spirit, however, will proudly cross the finish line, lifted, carried and joyfully, if not painfully, delivered by 22 family and friends who will run for him. 

"I'm a very unnatural runner, but it's to honor him," says Steve's wife, Tyra. "It's not really something we ever shared. But I'm finding it therapeutic. I picked up his iPod and went three miles by myself the other day. I was bawling at a Coldplay song, a U2 song, and then I heard The Beastie Boys, and I started laughing. I could just hear him running along, trying to rap."

It started with a headache.

"At first I thought it was just a sinus thing," Steve says of his original symptom in November 2007. "It was at the base of my neck, and it didn't go away with ibuprofen like normal. It was a low grade but always there."

Then came persistent hiccups. Trouble swallowing Tyra's homemade soup. And noticeable slurring in his speech.

By early December—one year ago this Thursday, in fact—an MRI at Baylor Medical Center-Frisco confirmed a "spot." A tiny, yet horrifying Damm spot.

"It was like looking at an alien," Tyra says. "Something was in Steve's body that wasn't supposed to be there."

Doctors said the inch-wide lesion attached to the right side of Steve's brain stem could be MS, lymphoma or, worst of all, a glioblastoma tumor. Steve's reaction? A four-mile run, of course.

"That day I really needed to clear my head," he says. "I had a lot to process."

His motor skills quickly diminished. His right eye quit tracking with his left, producing double vision. His left side significantly weakened, leaving him unable to button his shirts, apply deodorant or walk without a wobble.

Two days after Christmas the spot was confirmed as a tumor, and on January 17 the tumor was confirmed at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston as a Grade IV astrocytoma, or glioblastoma. The nastiest, most aggressive strain of brain cancer. Inoperable because of its super-sensitive location. Treatable only via chemotherapy and radiation and prayer.

Just like that, a 39-year-old father of two, devout Methodist and avid runner who didn't smoke or drink and who finished four miles just a month ago was down to his final four to six months. The rare, radical cancer affects only 2 in 100,000 Americans and is sporadic. There is no medical consensus about its genesis—like smoking or heredity. Only one in 20 glioblastoma patients survives three years; just one in 5,000 makes it a decade.

One doctor recommended Steve immediately check into a hospice.

Says Tyra, "I was inconsolable."

But instead of dying, Steve kept living.

Kept getting driven to work for his job as an administrator for Children's Medical Center of Dallas. Kept defying his non-responsive left side, eventually learning to type one-handed. Kept making trips to UT Southwestern Medical Center for steroids, five weeks of radiation and seven cycles of chemotherapy.

Kept improving. Kept refusing to wallow in "why me?"

"It happened to me, and I can't change that," Steve says, his voice ravaged by fatigue and medication. "It's a weird, random thing. Why? I don't know. The doctors don't know. It's not one of those things where you can say, 'Oh yeah, I ate mayonnaise on a Tuesday at 2:15 so I got cancer.' I'd rather focus on the positives. Before, I was a stubborn person who would get caught up in road rage and all that. My perspective has totally changed. Life is precious. And my support system has been overwhelming."

By June an MRI revealed a momentary miracle: A dormant tumor.

"It was shrinking," Tyra says. "There was no new activity."

But the truth is you don't beat brain cancer, you only delay it. A glioblastoma may sleep, but it never dies.

After nine months of relatively good health, Steve's recurring symptoms suddenly, drastically worsened last month. Exaggerated weakness in his left side. Slurring. Hiccups. The works. Sure enough, the Damm spot was growing. Test results last week showed live, active tumor cells. Ominous news.

"We knew we'd get to this point," Tyra says. "We just hoped it would be two years down the road."

Since it wasn't, Steve immediately had a port surgically inserted into his chest to ease the administering of medications. He began a new cycle of chemotherapy and a round of new biological therapy.

Hopefully it will slow, or ideally halt, the mass' growth.

"I'd be lying if I said I haven't thought about my own mortality," Steve says. "I hope this is just a bump in the road. But I know my odds, and they're pretty grim. Some people get hit by a car out of nowhere. I may very well know the thing that's going to kill me. That's why I don't take a second for granted. I'm milking as much out of life as possible."

Says Tyra, "We're realistic, but we're also praying for a miracle, a magic cure. He keeps being positive and talking with our kids about future milestones like holidays and birthdays and graduations we're all going to celebrate together. But we didn't think Steve would even make it to his 40th birthday [in November]. He's made it a year already. Every day we have him, we feel blessed."

Steve's next MRI is scheduled for January 8.

The Damms' outlook and attitude is truly inspiring. Unfathomable, really. Makes the rest of us self-absorbed schmucks feel entirely silly for obsessing about trivial things like the virtues of Rent on high-school drama stages or getting all indignant over Sean Avery's "sloppy seconds." Tyra is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News' Briefing—normally, within our Dallas Observer walls, considered a branch of the evil empire —but today her husband's transcendent tale supersedes petty rivalries.

Steve Damm won't be running The Rock on Sunday, or next year, or ever again.

But given his persistence and his family's positivism, don't bet against him being among the 12,000 runners, 100,000 spectators and 2,500 volunteers at the American Airlines Center finish line Sunday afternoon to hand out 130 yellow "See Spot Run" T-shirts and cheer on his runners.

"It's humbling. It tickles me that they're running in my name," Steve says. "But mostly I'm jealous. I wish I was running with them."

He still loves running.

Even when others have to do it for him.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt