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Why I run: TODAY's Erica Hill inspired by dad's battle with cancer

This Sunday, I’m running the New York City Marathon, a distance I swore I’d never tackle again after two very tough races more than a dozen years ago. But the reality is, I can do this, and I want to do it for my dad, Steve Hill. For the last few years of his life, he could barely walk, let alone run.On Sunday, I will be running for him, and for so many other families touched by cancer as part
Image: Erica Hill and her father
Courtesy of Erica Hill
Erica Hill and her father, Steve Hill, in 2005.Today

This Sunday, I’m running the New York City Marathon, a distance I swore I’d never tackle again after two very tough races more than a dozen years ago. But the reality is, I can do this, and I want to do it for my dad, Steve Hill. For the last few years of his life, he could barely walk, let alone run.

On Sunday, I will be running for him, and for so many other families touched by cancer as part of Fred’s Team. Fred’s Team, named for NYC Marathon co-founder Fred Lebow, raises awareness and critical funding for life-saving cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where Lebow was treated.

Like millions of Americans, my family has been hit hard by cancer, mainly on my father’s side. My grandfather, a man I never met, died after a bout with lung cancer. My grandmother survived breast cancer, but it’s a battle I’m reminded of each time I think about the chances for myself, my sister or one of my cousins to develop the disease. My dad was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in July 2002 when he was just 54 years old. Having recently changed jobs, he was flourishing and finally happy in his new career. He and my mom were embracing life as empty nesters. Everything was great ... until it wasn’t.

I was home in Connecticut with my sister and my future husband for the Fourth of July. We spent the day playing in my aunt and uncle’s pool, engaging in hours-long volleyball games with our cousin and her best friend. The dads oversaw a mini lobster bake, and everything seemed perfect. We were at that point in our lives where we all genuinely enjoyed spending time with our parents. It was a perfect day. And it ended far too quickly.

Just before we were heading home to California, my parents said they needed to talk with us in the kitchen. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I do remember wishing I could turn back time. It all seemed so unfair. My dad had already battled enough in his life — including a brain hemorrhage — why this? And why now, when my parents were finally in this wonderful place in their lives?

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We all know there are no real answers to those questions. But that doesn’t mean we need to give up hope that one day, there will be some answers and, ultimately, a better outcome than my father’s.

My dad‘s radiation and chemo did their job: they killed the cancer; it never came back. But those same treatments ravaged his body for years to come. My sweet, funny father who loved to cook spent the last eight years of his life on a feeding tube. The radiation killed his salivary glands and the scar tissue made swallowing nearly impossible. It also slowly ate away at his bones. In the summer of 2006, he had spinal fusion surgery; two metal rods were inserted in his neck to hold his head up because his bones could no longer do the job. The lists goes on and on. Through it all, my father never complained. My mother didn’t either. The demands on a caregiver are often overlooked, but she fought that battle right alongside him, and I know she has the scars to prove it.

My dad died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of May 8, 2010. I miss my father every single day. I miss the way he called me “Ruthie”. I miss calling him for cooking advice. I hate that he isn’t here to see his grandsons sing, dance, play football and go trick-or-treating. I miss his laugh.

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My dad’s doctors were wonderful, especially his oncologist, Dr. Miklos Fogarasi, who continued to check in on my mother after my dad died to make sure she was all right. The hospice nurses were true angels. But as much as we all appreciated their compassion, we would have done anything to change the outcome. And so I run because I don’t want anyone else to suffer like my father did. I don’t want another family to helplessly watch their loved one fade. I am running this marathon because I believe we can change the way these stories end, and I want to help make that happen.

On my early morning runs, when it’s just me and the stars, I swear I can feel my dad there with me, cheering me on. He hated to run, but he fiercely loved his family. He was always our biggest cheerleader, and I know he will be with me on Sunday, beaming with pride as we fight for a better ending together ... one that involves a world without cancer.

Erica Hill is a co-anchor of Weekend TODAY.