Jerry’s Story

Run a 5K.

3.1 miles. 

Don’t worry about time.

Just cross the finish line. 

This was the benchmark Jerry Walton set for himself after the removal of half of his left lung due to lung cancer. At the age of 52, missing half a lung, Jerry Walton completed his first race. And he didn’t stop there. 

I met Jerry for the first time the other day. He’s 70 now. We talked over coffee, and time – something neither of us were too focused on – slipped by us unnoticed. What was supposed to be a quick thirty-minute chat, turned into a two-plus hour escape. 

But that’s how it is with Jerry. He’s easy to slow down with. 

The birth of his benchmark seeking came when he asked his doctor for an x-ray over eighteen years ago. Jerry hadn’t smoked in seven years, but he knew the risks. He wanted a benchmark for his lungs. The outcome was one that was both lucky and unlucky. Lucky that he caught lung cancer early, unlucky that it would require surgery and four rounds of chemotherapy. 

Jerry was given a cancer-free diagnosis at the end of his treatment. As he told me at the coffee shop, he doesn’t have cancer. He’s a survivor which is something not everyone has the honor of saying. He was 52 years old, down one lung and carrying the guilt of survivorship. Needing an outlet, he decided to conduct an experiment. His body and mind had just gone through an extreme trial, and he wanted to know what else it was capable of. He set his sights on an upcoming 5K and got to training. 

Though he doesn’t remember the details, he remembers getting winded quickly. His game plan? Just keep moving the benchmark. 

Walk to the mailbox. Check.

Get to the top of the stairs. Check.

Walk a lap around the neighborhood. Check.

Little by little he moved that benchmark and crossed the finish line of his very first race. He had found joy in running. Joy in the movement, the rhythm, the way he could get lost in song or nature. He found joy in moving the benchmark. He found joy after cancer.

With each race, the benchmark setting continued. You see, Jerry is constantly being bested…by himself. He is his only competition. And while he’s a very determined runner, he will be the first to tell you he is not a fast runner. In Jerry’s own words, “I don’t know anybody who can slow down enough to keep up with me!”

Since that first 5K race, Jerry has completed over 100 races, clocked more than 16,000 miles and has crossed into ultra-marathon running. Yes, you read that right. What Jerry is capable of doing with one-and-a-half lungs, most cannot do with two. He keeps his bibs on a binder clip at home and that is it. There is no elaborate trophy room (in fact he donates his medals), no showboating or grandstanding. He has his benchmarks and his memories and that seems to be enough.  

Will he do another ultra marathon? He isn’t sure, but I gleaned a twinkle in his eye when I calculated his miles and told him he has traversed the length of the United States 5.7 times.

“Hmm.” Jerry said stoically. “Wouldn’t it be nice to say 6?”

— — —

Jerry volunteers his time with several lung-cancer focused non-profits including the Lung Cancer Initiative. Jerry wants other lung-cancer patients to know that happiness can be found after a cancer diagnosis if you only slow down enough to look for it. 

Written by Claire Connelly, Manager of Fundraising Events at Lung Cancer Initiative