By Steve Blanchard
Less than a month after learning that his Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) had returned, Ron Wertley ran 48.6 miles at Walt Disney World Marathon’s Dopey Challenge. It’s a challenge he’s completed every January since 2014, and he wasn’t about to let his cancer diagnosis ruin his record.
“I wanted to stay perfect,” he said. “This was my sixth year. It’s an important race for me and it supports an important cause.” Wertley ran with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training.
The Dopey Challenge, which has been a part of the Walt Disney World marathon weekend for six years, asks participants to successfully complete a 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon - a total of 48.6 miles - in four days. The annual run benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), an organization near and dear to Wertley.
“I learned about the LLS after my mom battled leukemia back in 2011,” Wertley said. “I’ve raised money for them ever since and take pride in wearing that purple shirt and sharing her story.”
Wertley estimates that he has raised nearly $50,000 for the organization, including the $9,000 or so that he raised this year.
“I made a promise to myself and to those who donated,” Wertley said. “This is extremely important to me.”
Fortunately, Wertley’s doctors at Moffitt were able to schedule his treatment to accommodate his race schedule. He was readmitted to Moffitt just two days after completing the challenge and expects to spend two weeks to a month undergoing treatment. He knows it’s an experience he won’t enjoy, mostly because he likes to remain active. But he knows what to expect and looks at this experience as a chance to reconnect with the Moffitt employees he now considers friends.
Wertley’s first bout with ALL began in early 2018, shortly after completing last year’s Dopey Challenge. ALL is a type of cancer that starts in the white blood cells that help the body’s immune system detect and destroy germs. Eventually, abnormal cells that are unable to mature properly accumulate in the blood. While it is a diagnosis he didn’t want, he wasn’t surprised when his general practitioner shared the news.
“Cancer runs in my family,” Wertley said. “My mom had it and her siblings have fought it. I was getting tested constantly and that helped us catch it early.”
His commitment to ongoing testing paid off. Catching his cancer early and following Moffitt’s treatment plan led to good news on July 1, 2018: Wertley was in remission. He celebrated, but knew that he had to continue testing and pay attention to any symptoms.
“I was in remission but I knew I still had it,” Wertley said. “It was hiding in me. I knew I needed to listen to my body and pay attention to signs that it could return.”
And that’s what happened leading into the holidays. Wertley noticed increased fatigue and new challenges in his training regimen. When he tested positive for ALL again shortly after Christmas, he wasn’t surprised.
“This is how it is,” Wertley said. “Moffitt took great care of me before and I know Dr. (Bijal) Shah and his team have a plan for me this time around. I was given steroids to help with the symptoms and had a successful run at Walt Disney World.”
This isn’t the first time he has run while battling cancer. He competed in the Busch Gardens 5K last May, just five months after his first diagnosis.
“The best way to battle this is to stay busy and active,” Wertley said. “Not everyone wants to run these distances but just getting out of bed and staying away from the depression is such an important part of recovery. I always tell people who are facing a cancer battle that staying busy is the best thing they can do, other than following their doctor’s instructions.”
Sharon, Wertley’s wife, agrees. She said that when her husband wasn’t training for a marathon, he was working in his shop, building whatever came to mind. Last year he built a bench, which they jokingly call his “cancer bench.”
“He likes to stay busy and even on the days where he didn’t have much energy, we would get him out of bed to take a short walk,” Sharon said. “It also gives him a chance to share his story and inspire others.”
And if he is able to do that while spreading awareness for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Wertley feels like he’s done his job.
“Running is a big part of my therapy,” he said. “Being out there alone with your thoughts is comforting, at least for me. Everyone has to find that outlet. I’m lucky to have found one that is also a passion.”