We all have a sweet spot in life — that place where our talent and enthusiasm merge and we’re doing what we were meant to do. For Jill Howard, it’s running. Really running.
She once ran the Boston Marathon a week after competing in an IRONMAN triathlon. In the summer of 2011, at age 40, Howard began chasing another athletic dream — to run in the Olympic Marathon Trials. “I wasn’t training to make the Olympic team, I just wanted to run in the trials,” she says.
Her body had other plans.
“One week I ran almost 100 miles. Several days later I couldn’t run more than 10 minutes. I’ve pushed through fatigue before. But every time I tried to get back in the saddle, my body sent me to the couch,” says the now-50-year-old Highlands Ranch resident. Crushing fatigue redefined her life. The first physician she saw chalked it up to depression. A sports medicine doctor in Boulder diagnosed her with chronic fatigue syndrome.
Meanwhile, an undiagnosed tumor the size of a baseball was pressing into the frontal lobe of her brain.
Brain Tumor Diagnosis
Training went by the wayside, Howard gained 30 pounds, and the lifestyle she loved slipped away. As anyone who has experienced a major health setback understands, sometimes just getting through the day felt like a Herculean feat. She somehow kept up with her job as an account manager, but her fatigue was so bad some nights that she would ask her boyfriend to come over just to take her dog outside.
“The fatigue was absolutely debilitating,” she recalls. Then the concentration problems started. Two years later, excruciating headaches kicked in. “I had huge neurological red flags. I was zombielike,” she says. Finally, in October 2013, Howard went to an urgent care, where she was referred immediately to Littleton Adventist Hospital’s emergency room.
Within hours, tests revealed the large noncancerous brain tumor, called a meningioma, on the frontal lobe of her brain. Howard was admitted to the Littleton Adventist Hospital ICU and scheduled for brain surgery.
There, neurosurgeon David VanSickle, MD, PhD, with Neurosurgery One, says several dangers were present. “Some of these tumors make vascular attachments that cause the brain to swell and cease to function properly. In addition, there are symptoms that come from direct pressure of the tumor,” he says. “For survival, surgery was the only option.”
Though she was concerned about whether she would walk straight — much less run — again, Howard says she felt relief to finally have a true diagnosis that made sense.
Back to Running
One week later, VanSickle performed brain tumor removal surgery. Two months later, Howard ran a 5K. Within three months she had dropped the 30 pounds. And before a year had even passed, she ran the 2014 Top of Utah Marathon, winning her age group with a time that qualified her for the Boston Marathon.
Coincidentally, VanSickle had taken up running around the time Howard became his patient. At routine follow-up checks, their conversations inevitably turned to running. He tracked her symptoms, and she offered advice on handling aches and pain. “It was mutually inspiring,” VanSickle says. In fact, they each competed in Colfax Marathon events in Denver 2015: Howard in the 10-miler and VanSickle in his first-ever 13-mile half marathon.
Howard hasn’t stopped running since.
Timing is everything
Looking back, it’s tempting to think that the misdiagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome cost Howard two productive years of life. She prefers to focus on the empathy that her suffering forged — a trait she puts to use with cancer and surgery patients as a volunteer Visiting Angel at Littleton Adventist Hospital.
“I really felt like when I was chasing the Olympic Marathon Trials that this was how I was going to encourage others: as a runner in her 40s making the trials. I think God had a much bigger dream for me,” she says.
As crazy as it sounds, she is glad the tumor was discovered when it was instead of sooner. “There are many reasons for this — one being that I might not have had as excellent of a neurosurgeon as Dr. VanSickle.”
Since her surgery, three of her family members also have had surgery performed by VanSickle. And Howard has used her experience to help other physicians. She now acts as a standardized patient to portray patient scenarios to help train physicians to be better doctors.
Join the race to cure brain tumors
Every year, the American Brain Tumor Association holds a 5K race around the country to support brain tumor research. Breakthrough for Brain Tumors, or BT5K, is being held virtually this year on Sunday, Nov. 7. Learn more, register, or support BT5K online.
Brain Tumor Removal Surgery Guide
If you or a loved one are facing surgery to remove a brain tumor, download this guide to learn more about treatment options, how to select a surgeon, and more.