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Houston Half Marathon

Lung cancer survivor Chuck Martinez keeps on running; completes second half-marathon race

UPDATE: Chuck Martinez finished the half marathon 168th in his age group, in 2 hours and 28 minutes.

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More than 3,500 runners will take part in the the Houston Half Marathon & Relay Sunday. At least one has survived lung cancer.

Chuck Martinez was 37 and a year-long bladder cancer survivor when he went to the doctor for a routine check up and X-ray in 2007. The oncologist found a spot on Martinez's right lung —unusual for a man who had never smoked in his life — and removed the entire middle lobe with surgery.

A follow-up scan revealed that a second tumor had metastasized on his lymph node.

Martinez went to Dr. Ritsuko Komaki, director of the M.D. Anderson Thoracic Radiation Oncology Program, for a second opinion. She noted that that the tumor was now in Stage III, and she deemed Martinez an ideal candidate for a new approach to treating lung cancer: Proton therapy, which allows for a very targeted treatment of cancerous growths.

Martinez's vital lung capacity has improved by 10 percent since his surgery four years ago. It's well above the average, at 109 percent — even without a portion of his right lung. All of his training for long-distance running must have helped.

 Doctors have used protons to treat tumors near the heart and brain and to combat cancers in children. They have been impressed with the results of proton therapy in conjunction with chemotherapy. But the effects on lung cancer were not well-established — and often not approved for insurance coverage.

"I wanted to cure this guy," said Dr. Komaki. "I didn't want to damage the normal tissues or other organs. . . He was so young, and I didn't want him to be on oxygen after treatment, or have any problems with shortness of breath."

Martinez endured the 7 1/2 weeks of 5-days-a-week proton therapy treatment and once-a-week chemotherapy. He experienced very few of the common and uncomfortable difficulties that make normal radiation treatments so unbearable: Difficulty breathing and eating, coughing and weight-loss.

"The treatment itself was simple," said Martinez. "I only experienced a little pain when I swallowed."

After the surgery and treatments, the tumor was gone and Martinez felt great. He began walking outside for exercise and to clear his head. He started a diet and lost 30 pounds. He decided to try jogging again (after a years-long hiatus due to knee discomfort). It felt good, so he kept going. 

Martinez and his wife, Lora, ran a 5K as a "test run," and then joined the Katy Fit training program in the summer of 2010. The couple ran the Houston Half Marathon as a relay team in October of last year. Martinez ran his first half marathon in January. Sunday's race will be his second half marathon. He's hoping to improve his speed and time in preparation for the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in January 2012.

"I feel very fortunate to be alive in general," said Martinez, "And to be healthy enough to run a half marathon."

Dr. Komaki explained that Martinez's vital lung capacity has improved by 10 percent since his surgery four years ago. It's well above the average, at 109 percent — even without a portion of his right lung. All of his training for long-distance running must have helped.

"When I was speaking with a doctor before my surgery, he said 'Even though we're taking out part of your lung, you'll still be able to run a marathon if you want to.' I didn't take it literally," explained Martinez.

"Running a marathon didn't even cross my mind. My wife and I used to watch them every year on TV, wondering, 'What does it take for someone to do that?' I never thought it would be me participating."

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