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How a Surprising Cancer Diagnosis Changed the Way I Travel and Inspired Me to Run the London Marathon

How a Surprising Cancer Diagnosis Changed the Way I Travel and Inspired Me to Run the London Marathon

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For Travel + Leisure’s column Traveling As, we’re talking to travelers about what it’s like to explore the world through their unique perspectives. We talked to our own senior editorial director, Nina Ruggiero, who is also the co-founder of Be A Travel Writer, about how her sudden and shocking thyroid cancer diagnosis made her lean further into her global travels, even running her first long-distance race at the London Marathon in the midst of her treatment. Here’s her story… 

As far as I knew, I was a perfectly healthy 33-year-old who was constantly on the go, traveling the world, working a lot, planning a wedding, all the normal things. I was someone who only went to the doctor when it was absolutely necessary — and I needed some vaccinations to go to Botswana last fall.

At the very end of my vaccination appointment, the doctor casually did a checkup, touched my neck, and said, “Did you know you have a lump on your neck?” I had no idea. 

I could tell she immediately thought something was off. I had an invincible mindset, but you can read the room. The way she so urgently ordered I go have an ultrasound, I thought OK, maybe something actually is up.

I had never thought about thyroid cancer as a possibility; it wasn’t in my family. So, I went for the ultrasound, then the biopsy, and just after my 34th birthday, about four days before I was supposed to leave for Botswana, they called me and said it was cancer.

The thing with papillary thyroid cancer is, everyone says it’s the “good” cancer. If you’re going to get cancer, this is the one to get, which is a weird thing to hear. It’s normally quite treatable, so I did take comfort in that. But you’re still dealing with cancer. 

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

One of my first thoughts was, can I still go to Botswana? I was excited about this trip with Desert & Delta Safaris because it was different from anything I’d ever done. As an editor at T+L, I travel all the time. But when you go to a place that’s completely different, it throws you out of that travel editor mentality and you’re just a human in a faraway place in awe of the world. At T+L, we purposely don’t use the term “bucket list trip” because, well, there’s a connotation of death. So, I found it quite ironic that it was at an appointment for what I quietly considered my personal “bucket list trip” that they realized I had cancer. 

In light of this, I felt even more determined to check a safari off my bucket list. My GP was nervous and wanted me to cancel, but my endocrinologist and surgeon both told me to go and “live my life!” It felt a little strange being excited for this big trip I had been looking forward to and also having this new information in the back of my mind. 

A safari turned out to be the perfect trip because I was so in the moment. Every day, you’re going out on morning drives, watching the sun rise while a family of monkeys plays in front of you. You’re spotting hippos behind every tree. The moment we got there, we turned a corner and giraffes were in the road. You step off the plane and you’re in a whole other world. I couldn’t focus on anything else.

Safaris do, however, make you think about the circle of life. We were watching lions hunting and eating their kills. Things like that do put it all in perspective a bit. Being diagnosed with thyroid cancer was the closest brush I’ve had with death so far in my life. I did have my doctors saying, “Live your life” in the back of my mind, and I was wholeheartedly doing just that. But a little part of me kept wondering, did they say that because I’m going to die?

There were times on that trip when I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh, it was just a dream,” and then realized no, I really do have cancer. I was having the time of my life, but I knew what I’d be dealing with after it was over.

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

When I got back to the U.S., I started to prep for surgery, where I’d have my entire thyroid removed, as well as lots of lymph nodes, since it had spread throughout my neck. I knew it would be a pretty extensive surgery, and that I’d need radioactive iodine treatment afterward. Papillary thyroid cancer is a slow growing cancer, and my endocrinologist thinks I may have had it undetected for about 10 years. 

Days before my surgery, I got an invitation from Westin Hotels & Resorts to run the TCS London Marathon. I had been a casual runner. Sometimes, I’d do a 5K, but I was never a distance runner. Previously, I had no desire to run a marathon, yet something clicked when I got that invite. I thought it might be good for me after my surgery to have something to train for to motivate me and keep me active. 

Due to my upcoming surgery, we had just canceled our U.K. trip to spend Christmas in Wales with my fiancé’s family, which I had been looking forward to. Spending Christmastime in Wales is like entering Santa’s grotto — picking your own holly in the forest, cozy roast dinners — it’s one of my favorite things. Running the marathon in London would also give me a reason to return to the U.K., so I signed up.

I didn’t tell anyone for a long time because I was afraid they were going to say, you can’t do that. Your surgery is in January, the marathon’s in April — and it’s your first marathon. 

It took me a few weeks to recover from surgery. It wasn’t the easiest — I had a drain attached to my neck, which was a difficult time. I was also having bad back issues, so it took me even longer to start training than I expected. 

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

In February, I had my first post-surgery trip planned to Mexico and I realized, I have to start training now or it’s going to be too late. Westin has a great partnership with the Abbott World Marathon Majors and they paired me with a running coach, Chris Heuisler. He told me I could do a run-walk method, and that gave me hope. Who cares if I walk some of it, I just wanted to finish — it was doable.

So, in Mexico, I went for my first training run on a treadmill and was so anxious. I stormed off the treadmill. I told myself, I can’t do this. I was bored. I was nervous. I just couldn’t run any sort of distance. 

I decided maybe it would be better outdoors. But another complication of having thyroid surgery is that you have a giant scar on your neck and have to be careful of having that in the sun. I have always been a big sun worshiper, but now it was a real issue.

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

The entranceway to the Waldorf Astoria Los Cabos Pedregal, where I was staying, has this iconic long tunnel that’s shady. So, I ran lap after lap through it, and while it may have appeared strange, it actually felt good. Next, I engineered tying things around my neck to protect it and came up with a route into town through the marina. That’s when I realized running is actually a great way to travel. My fiancé ran with me, so we would go out early and watch Cabo wake up. 

From there, I started incorporating running into all of my travels. Once you lose your thyroid, you have to be on a daily pill for the rest of your life that acts like your thyroid would have. A lot of people have a hard time regulating that, but I’ve been lucky. The constant running kept me stronger and also mentally helped me feel like my body can do difficult things.

Now, I’ve incorporated running into all my trips — I ran around Sicily and did the most hills I’ve ever done. I hadn’t been to Paris in years, so I put the Louvre into my maps and ran there. You find yourself in a random park you wouldn’t have seen or taking different turns you wouldn’t have taken. You see places you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It’s a cool way to explore and feel like a local in a foreign city, and it’s something I plan to continue doing.

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

When I reached an 18-mile training run, my coach, Chris, said, “You’re going do this!” That made me feel like I could put it out in the world now. I also wanted to use the marathon to raise money for thyroid cancer — and ended up being the only one in the entire London Marathon who chose a thyroid cancer charity. 

Of course, to raise money, I had to put it out there. I was nervous to tell people I had cancer; I’m not typically a big oversharer. Immediately, I was overwhelmed by the support. Of course, from my family and my closest friends, but also my colleagues, people I had worked with once or twice here or there, and friends of friends. So many people were reaching out to support me — and there were so many people who told me they had thyroid cancer, too. 

I was on a trip in Palm Springs when I saw I had hit my fundraising target in less than an hour. I said OK, I have to go for a good run in the morning. It motivated me with good pressure. I ended up raising about £6,000 (about $7,631 in U.S. dollars) for the Butterfly Thyroid Cancer Trust.

The day before the marathon, I felt some nerves, but the day of, I was pretty settled. My fiancé had done every single training run with me, so the marathon was going to be my first solo run. But I felt ready. 

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

Everyone talks about a marathon feeling like a community, and I really did feel that. There was the West End cast of Mamma Mia singing at one point, there were DJs here and there, there were funny signs, there were people cheering everywhere. I’d been to London before, but I’d never seen it in this way. 

There was a point right around mile 13 where I thought, oh no, we’re only halfway. Then, I turned a corner and we were running over Tower Bridge. Any negative thought I had went out of my mind. I was in London with all of these amazing people running over Tower Bridge. You appreciate these sites so much more while running than you would if you had just gone by on a red bus. I felt like I earned this sight. You feel the collective energy of the whole city. On future trips to London, I don’t think I’ll ever walk by Tower Bridge and not think of that. It affects the way you see the place.

The finish line was just past Buckingham Palace. I had just taken a friend on a self-guided walking tour of London a few days before, so I knew once we got to Birdcage Walk and were running beneath the trees, Big Ben was behind me. Buckingham Palace was ahead of me. I realized I was going to make it. I was so close. In the days leading up to the race, my fiancé wouldn’t stop pointing out landmarks to me all over the city: “When you see this or that, you’ll be this close to the finish line.” That helped me power through, and I never stopped to walk. He later found me on the finish line tapes, and I was speeding through. It was the energy of seeing these iconic London sites and realizing what they meant as markers in this race and this accomplishment.

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

Along the way, I made a conscious effort to notice everything and be in the moment. I guess that’s the same feeling I had on the safari: I’m here, this is happening, I’m having this amazing new experience right now and nothing else matters. These experiences will change the way I travel for the rest of my life because I’ll always be in search of the most immersive trips, the ones that shake you out of your daily life and place you firmly in the present. 

I knew I was going to go home and prepare for my radioactive iodine treatment, which was daunting. It was coming off this high and getting back into cancer world, spending time in doctors’ offices again and getting my blood drawn every day. It was a wakeup call back to reality, and I struggled with it. I had to go home, get on a strict diet, take a radioactive pill, and isolate myself in a room for almost a week.

It was the highest highs followed by the lowest lows, but I made it through, again thanks to the support of my family and friends — and this newfound confidence that I can take on any challenge. Plus, I knew the world would be out there waiting for me.

I got out of isolation on Memorial Day and had five trips booked for June. With all of them now under my belt and plans for New York, Italy, and London in July, I’m fully back to feeling like myself for the first time since my diagnosis. That’s what happens when you keep “living your life,” just like the doctors ordered.

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