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Thursday, October 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Steve Kelley

Washington runner Hickey discovers life of substance through illness

Seattle Times staff columnist

The small lump on his scalp, Jon Hickey believed, wasn't supposed to be dangerous. He just didn't like the look of it and wanted it removed. It was more cosmetic, he thought, than medical.

On that spring day in 2004, he was going to the doctor for a simple procedure to remove a cyst. He figured the lump would be cut out, and quickly he would be back on the track and back to the envious life of a student-athlete.

But the minutes in his doctor's office droned too slowly, and the look Hickey defines as "surprise" on the doctor's face was troubling. The local anesthetic was wearing off and Hickey was starting to feel pain.

The lump, it turned out, was a rare form of skin cancer called dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans. A locally aggressive cancer, it already was attacking not only his skin, but the muscle tissue around it.

Hickey, a junior at the University of Washington who runs cross country and track, felt his idyllic college life thrown into a spin. He had cancer. He would need surgery, and every cancer patient goes into surgery feeling a little like a soldier going into battle alone.

As he waited out the month before surgery, Hickey tried to keep his life as normal as possible. He continued running, continued going to class, but he carried the worry with him like a suitcase full of bricks.

"Everything I did, the only thing that was going through my head was that I had cancer," Hickey said. "It was a total shock to my system."

The procedure, called Mohs Surgery, lasted 10 hours and Hickey was awake for the entire process. Surgeons would cut out a chunk of skin on his scalp all the way to the bone, then look at the sample under a microscope to see if there was cancer on the edges.

Hickey survived five rounds of that. Before each round he would be injected with a local anesthetic. His head would be wrapped and unwrapped. He would be stitched and unstitched.

And after every round, the wound would be cauterized, and he would be aware of the acrid smell of his burning skin.

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"It was pretty brutal," he said. "It sounds a little cheesy, but I think being a runner really helped me. After every round, I would think like I was running a track race and say to myself, 'OK, one more lap.'

"I knew I wanted to quit, but I knew I had to keep going. Now, every once in a while, I do think to myself when I'm really in a lot of pain during a workout or a race, 'Wow, I've been through a lot worse than this.' "

Hickey is healthy and running again, and the chances of the cancer returning are microscopic. He pulls back his hair to reveal a scar about the size of a silver-dollar pancake. It is the daily souvenir from the greatest victory of his life.

"Because I have the scars on my forehead, I think of the cancer every day and quite often," Hickey said. "I'm always self-conscious and always trying to make sure my hair's covering it. It's just a scar. I don't know why it's that big of a deal. I look in the mirror. I take a shower. I'm always looking at it. It just reminds me of bad memories. The surgery was very, very painful.

"One reason I'm still out there running now is to prove something to myself," he said. "I had these goals coming to college — break 14 minutes for the 5K, run under four minutes for the mile and compete in the NCAA championships — and I think, deep down, I want to prove that after all the hardships I've been through, I can still do that stuff."

Obviously, cancer changes everyone it touches. It makes people audit their lives and rearrange their priorities. Hickey still is fiercely competitive. But his cancer has enlarged his world.

He volunteers at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. And he is the founder of the Tri-Cities Race Against Cancer, a 5K race in his hometown of Richland. In its two years, the race has raised more than $6,000 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

"I've just started to really value other parts of my life, and I'm willing to make sacrifices to do stuff that I wouldn't do before," he said. "And I'm a lot less stressed when I run."

And then Jon Hickey left to go running and resume his idyllic, and now even more substantive, life.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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