Greg Gerardy just completed the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon this past Sunday for the fifth time. As if that isn't a big enough accomplishment, he did it with only one functional lung.
Gerardy, 50, of Oklahoma City, told TODAY that he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when he was 29 years old, which involved a “tentacle-like” tumor that wove through and around his neck and spine. Several doctors initially thought a pinched nerve was the cause of his pain. It was his knee doctor who ordered a scan of the neck. "When I came out of the scanner was when he told me I had a massive tumor around the spine, into the shoulder and upper thoracic areas," he recalled.
"I've survived cancer three times over the last 20 years," Gerardy said. "I've also been recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder where my body’s immune system is basically attacking itself, most likely a long-term side effect of the chemo."
Multiple major surgeries helped to remove some of the cancer but could not prevent it from invading his right lung. Gerardy described the cancer as “not a nice little encapsulated tumor” but rather a “viney” one that winded around his internal organs. And while his right lung is now a paralyzed, collapsed mass of tissue that’s grown into his chest wall, that hasn’t stopped him from completing triathlons and long distance bike rides in addition to marathons.
Gerardy said that he was somewhat active before he got cancer, and that following his illness he struggled to just walk up a flight of stairs. But that didn’t stop him from moving.
“I challenged myself to see what I could do little bits at a time,” he said.
Gerardy’s functional lung volume is 58 percent of a normal person. “I have a little over half of what a normal person has due to the left lung expanding and adapting,” he said.
The father of two adult children said that listening to his body has been the key to not just running marathons, but doing everyday tasks such as yard work.
“If I'm digging a hole I have to stop and rest and let my lung refresh,” he said. “You get used to it and listen to your body. If you need a break, let some oxygen get in there.”
Gerardy said that most rehab programs are geared toward getting people off oxygen and out of the hospital, but that there’s no emphasis placed on getting them back to an active lifestyle — and he’d like to see that changed.
“That’s one of the first things doctors say, ‘You’ll never run a marathon again.’ But we can still do these things,” he said. “There’s no reason people should give up hope.”
We can still do these things. There’s no reason people should give up hope.
Gerardy has influenced the doctors he’s seen by showing them that there really are no limitations as long as you listen to your body. "I run, bike, swim, hike, snow ski, water ski, play volleyball, climb and whatever other opportunities come along for activities," he said.
But he didn’t always have such a positive outlook.
“There was a point when I was stuck in a black hole watching life go by,” he said. After his second wife left him, he knew things had to change. “I kind of got to a point where I said, I can’t live like this anymore. I’ve got to at least try to do something and be an example for my kids. They’ve never known me healthy; they’ve only known me sick.”
He said that his resilience also comes from the fact that, “if someone tells me it can’t be done I want to prove them wrong.”
As for the OKC Memorial Marathon, Gerardy said his finishing time of 5:25:28 wasn’t his fastest but that “any race you can finish is a good race.”
He hopes that by wearing his “1 lung” t-shirt and by telling his story to those who ask, he can inspire others with one lung — or two — to get motivated and moving.
In 2015, Gerardy began running again by jogging the length of a house on his street, and then walking the length of the next house, until he built up his endurance.
There were plenty of failures along the way, including events he started but just could not finish. But it was only by “failing spectacularly” that he was able to accomplish something truly spectacular.
“People just see the end result but it took a lot of small steps to get here.”