Fighting back against cancer: One man's story
For runner Gabe Villarreal, the finish line is not the end of the race – it’s a cure for the disease that took the lives of his father and niece. Fueled by optimism, patience and family memories, he has dedicated four marathons to fighting back through the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation program. “When you have a family member going through treatment, fighting this disease, you feel helpless,” he says. “My way of helping to do more… is to participate in events and raise awareness.” Through the DetermiNation program, he has found a support network, even on the race course.
"Having a stranger tap you on the shoulder and say, 'I'm a cancer survivor,' or 'I lost a loved one' – that's really what keeps me going."
Here, we talk with Villareal about makes him run in the DetermiNation program.
SheKnows: How much have you raised through your marathons? How did you feel as you finished each?
Villarreal: Since 2007, I have run the Chicago Marathon every year for the American Cancer Society. Over the years, my wife and I have raised more than $5,200. This year, I will run the race again as a DetermiNation athlete, raising funds for ACS.
Every marathon I finish brings feelings that are difficult to put into words. When I see the finish line, I think of my father and niece. I always look up and thank them for getting me through the race. I also think of everyone who has supported me in my training and fundraising. There is always a sense of personal accomplishment that follows running 26.2 miles, but for me, the true joy comes in knowing that I have finished the race and have helped get one step closer to finding a cure for cancer. The best part is having a complete stranger see my American Cancer Society team singlet and thank me for raising funds.
SheKnows: How does it help you cope with your losses?
Villarreal: Training for [the 2007 Chicago Marathon] became my therapy. Running has always been a way for me to decompress after a stressful day. It's a time for personal reflection. During my training runs, I often think of my father and niece, and reflect on the good times we spent together.
Being part of the DetermiNation program has let me honor their memories in so many ways. When they were going through their treatments, I felt so helpless. I felt there was nothing I could do to make their situation better. Through the DetermiNation program, I now have an outlet to do more. I now have a way to honor the memories of loved ones while helping countless others I have never met.
SheKnows: What advice would you give someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one?
Villarreal: Do not dwell on the pain that the loved one faced while battling this disease. Think of the good times. With my niece, it was growing up together. With my father, I think of the talks we had and the lessons he taught me.
I encourage people to serve as a support system to friends or families who have lost loved ones to cancer. If anything, just be there to listen. Often, talking about the passing of a loved one is the first step to recovering from the loss.
SheKnows: Looking back, what best helped you get through the losses of your father and niece? What helps you now?
Villarreal: The support of my wife. [She] is my best friend and truly understands me. Together, we were able to deal with these tremendous losses. She is also active in the DetermiNation program and has helped me raise funds year after year.
[What] helps me now is cherishing the memories of my father and niece. Not a day goes by when I don't think of them. They have made me a better person. I believe everything happens for a reason. Although I struggle with understanding why they got cancer, I am finally able to accept it. Without these events happening, I don't think I would have ever found the DetermiNation program. So, out of my sadness, I have found a positive.
SheKnows: What is your best advice for those helping a loved one through cancer treatment?
Villarreal: The best advice I can give is two words: "Patience" and "optimism." It is difficult to understand what a loved one is going through while he is being treated. He is facing the scariest, most stressful things in life.
You must understand that [your loved one] will have several emotions coming to the surface. You need to remain strong and supportive. You cannot dwell on the negatives that surround a cancer diagnosis. You need to remain optimistic and think of the treatment as an obstacle in life's journey. Remind your loved ones that they are going to get past this obstacle, and you will be with them every step of the way. Although watching a loved one being treated for this disease is painful, you must find ways to try and understand what he is going through. Have empathy for him and always provide the support he needs in this difficult time.