There’s a sign above a window in Robert Dunn’s office at BJ Ford in Liberty, Texas, that pretty much sums up his outlook on life. In big, bold letters, the sign reads: “If you don’t climb the mountain, you can’t see the view.”
The sign is a reminder that with great challenges comes great rewards. It’s a philosophy that has seen Dunn through the successful completion of 26 Chevron Houston marathons and eight Boston marathons, and carried him through a recent cancer scare that could have ended his love of running and his life.
“We forget that life is delicate. We all take it for granted and don’t think about it. Then, in the blink of an eye, it can all change,” Dunn said. “I’ve learned not to take it for granted and to enjoy what the Good Lord gives me because it can be taken away pretty fast.”
Dunn, 55, was diagnosed in the early part of 2020 with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. In Dunn’s case, the cancer created a tumor that wrapped around one kidney and had spread to other parts of his body, including his bone marrow.
The diagnosis was made at Houston Methodist Hospital in downtown Houston after Dunn found a lump on his chest.
“I was afraid to go to the doctor because there was a pandemic going on. I started having pain in my lower abdomen that kept me from sleeping a lot, so I went in to be checked in June 2020,” he said.
Initially, doctors said the lump was benign and needed surgery to be removed. However, when doctors found something abnormal in his blood, they became concerned about his kidney function and ordered more tests. It was in the follow-up tests, which included an X-ray that Dunn had insisted on, that the tumor was found.
“The doctor called me and said, ‘Mr. Dunn, I am afraid I have some bad news. You have a huge tumor wrapped around your kidney and you have it in several other spots.’ She wanted me to come in the next day to meet with an oncologist, so I knew it was serious,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying to myself, ‘This ain’t good.'”
His first call after the diagnosis was to his business partner and cousin, Bruce Burnham, followed by calls to his wife, parents, children and friends.
“From there the journey began. I was doing my own research online about my cancer and I had to stop. It was making me sick,” he said. “I reminded myself that I am not the doctor and I shouldn’t read that stuff anymore.”
Dunn felt it was important to stay in a positive mind frame, particularly since the doctors believed the cancer was treatable, which gave him hope.
In July 2020, he began eight rounds of chemotherapy, staying at the hospital for five days at a time with two-week gaps in between treatments. As it was the height of the first round of the COVID-19 pandemic, it meant that he had to go it alone with no family members staying with him.
“My wife Rhonda would take me and drop me off. The first time was the hardest because I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
His first glimmer of hope came when his oncologist, Dr. Garth Beinart, determined that the cancer had not spread to his brain or spine.
“I took the good news and ran with it. That was the only piece of good news that I had at the time other than the fact that this type of cancer is supposed to be treatable,” Dunn said.
His approach to his cancer treatments were handled like he manages long-distance running – one chemo treatment at a time, one mile at a time. To boost his spirits and remind himself that he would eventually get back to running, he made a point of wearing one of his marathon finisher shirts on the days he was discharged from the hospital.
“It was like accomplishing a certain number of miles in a marathon as I left the hospital after a treatment,” he said. “It all worked to my favor. At some point, the doctor found out that I was a runner and promised he would get me back to it.”
However, it would be several months before he could even contemplate running long distances again. The cancer didn’t stop him from dreaming though, so he entered the Chevron Houston marathon while still in the hospital getting a chemo treatment.
“The marathon was a dangling carrot for me, something to motivate me. Surviving it for my family was the serious thing,” he said.
From his hospital bed, he signed up to run in the January 2021 Chevron Houston marathon without knowing for sure if he would be well enough by then to actually run. As the pandemic was continuing, the 2021 marathon was made into a virtual event where people ran their miles near their homes and communities, and reported their times. Not interested in a virtual run and not quite ready for a vigorous run, Dunn opted out that year and looked toward the 2022 marathon. When the day came to sign up, he was ready.
“On the entry form, there is a place to list why you run. I have never filled out that part, but this year, I had a story. I wrote that I had run 25 Houston marathons in a row, then got cancer and missed out. I said I was looking forward to 2022 and starting my streak again,” Dunn said.
His positive mindset and determination helped him finish the Houston marathon in January 2022 with a time of 3 hours and 28 minutes, which now qualifies him to run in the Boston Marathon this April.
“I did 26 miles with each mile under eight minutes. That’s fast for a novice like me, and for my age, it’s pretty fast,” he said.
When asked what kept him motivated throughout the cancer scare, Dunn said it was simple. He was not ready to die and didn’t want to leave his family to carry on without him.
“I didn’t want my parents to see their son not make it. I felt like that would be hard. I wanted to make it for them, for my sister, Julie, my wife and daughters,” he said.
Dunn knows there will always be struggles in life; however, how well a person perseveres during hardships depends a lot on their outlook.
“Like the message in that signs says,” he said, pointing to the motivational sign in his window, “If you don’t challenge yourself, you may not see and do everything you want in life. I have been to the Boston marathon eight times and, God willing, I will be there a ninth time.”