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By Mike Tymn
Special to The Advertiser
The biggest winner in Monday's Great Aloha Run may have been Kathy Hashimoto.
Finishing in an hour and 28 minutes, the 43-year-old Kailua resident was in the middle of the field, well behind the leaders, but considering that she wasn't even supposed to be alive now, her effort was clearly a victory celebration.
Afflicted with a condition known as collecting duct carcinoma, a very rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer, Hashimoto was admitted to hospice care in early June 2009. The cancer had spread throughout her body — from her kidney to her liver, other organs, and lymph nodes. Her doctors had done all they could.
Hashimoto lost her appetite, began dreaming about death, helped her sister, Maile, prepare a video for her funeral, and recorded audio tapes for her daughters, Elizabeth, 10, and Marie, 8.
"She was all skin and bones and really looked terrible, like somebody in Dachau (Nazi concentration camp)," says her father, Dr. Peter Barcia, former chief of surgery at Tripler Army Medical Center, now retired from the Army and working as a contract physician.
"We thought she had a matter of weeks or several months, at best," says Dr. Melvin Palalay, her oncologist. "We definitely didn't expect her to be celebrating the New Year."
Hashimoto went along with her husband Mark's "Project Hope," as Barcia refers to it, as long as possible, but reached a point at which she felt that she there was no more reason to delay the inevitable.
"I really felt like I was dying and was ready to let go and trust in the Lord," the former school teacher explains her decision to enter hospice, a support program for terminally ill patients.
Not long after entering hospice care, a CT scan indicated that her condition was improving.
By August, Hashimoto was doing laps around her living room. In a matter of weeks, she was doing laps around her backyard.
After getting "kicked out" of hospice during November, she started putting in 5-7 miles a day around the Lanikai loop in Kailua in preparation for Monday's race.
"It was mostly walking, although I'd do short spurts from telephone pole to telephone pole," she says with a wide smile.
A CT scan during November was "essentially clear," according to Palalay.
"It's really quite amazing," he adds. "Clearly, we don't have all the answers."
A mid-January scan indicated two small diminishing lesions — one in her liver and one in a lung.
"They have watched these getting smaller and are all that are left of the multiple ones that were throughout my organs," Hashimoto says.
"I felt great and was able to run (vs. walk) a lot more than I do in my training runs," she jubilantly offers of her 8.15-mile effort from Aloha Tower to Aloha Stadium on Monday.
"I even left my training partner at four miles. It felt good being able to push myself."
A runner since age 11, Hashimoto garnered many awards, including victories in the Kaua'i Marathon at age 13 and in the 1995 Run to the Sun, a 36.2-mile race to the summit of Haleakalā on Maui.
She competed in cross country and track at 'Iolani and then in cross country at the University of Santa Clara. She finished the 1986 Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 3 minutes and change.
The entire Barcia family, including Mom, Dad and 10 children, calling themselves "The Motley Crew," were frequent participants in Hawai'i road races during the late '70s, the '80s and '90s.
Hashimoto believes that prayer and healing touch massage have been largely responsible for her recovery.
"It can't be scientifically explained," her jubilant father says. "There's conjecture for those who require a secular explanation, but we believe that prayer had a lot to do with it. As my wife, Julie, said, there are miracles, and we are watching one every day."
The secular explanation, according to Palalay, is that after the chemotherapy and other drugs were stopped, Hashimoto's immune system became stronger and began attacking the tumors, but Palalay agrees with Barcia that it is conjecture only.
"I think there are modes of healing that we can't explain scientifically," he offers. "I see Kathleen as a real spiritual warrior. She's so strong, physically, mentally, and spiritually."
The diseased kidney that triggered her recent struggles was actually a transplanted kidney that she received in 2004 after experiencing end-stage kidney failure, a result of polycystic kidney disease, a rare congenital disorder that has affected her father and three siblings.
The transplanted kidney was added to her two natural kidneys that were failing, but was removed during September 2008, soon after the cancer was discovered.
"I knew something was wrong about six months before the cancer was diagnosed," Hashimoto recalls. "I just felt tired and exhausted all the time."
After the diagnosis and removal of the diseased kidney, she immediately began chemotherapy and dialysis, the latter being a five-hour process three times per week.
While Hashimoto was undergoing the conventional treatment, her family, devout Catholics, were praying and requesting prayers from friends.
"Actually, we didn't have to ask many people," Barcia says. "We ran into so many people that told us they had heard about Kathy's condition and said they were praying for her, and there were many of them who volunteered to help in other ways, bringing the family meals, driving Kathy to her treatments, and in so many other ways. We knew we were dealing with a deadly problem, but we were still hopeful."
Meanwhile, husband Mark Hashimoto persisted in urging his wife to believe that "hope is about action, options, and positive expectations."
As Barcia sees it, even if the secular explanation is correct, the revitalized immune system may very well have been a result of the prayers. Palalay calls it a "blessed event."
While Hashimoto appears to have overcome the cancer, her two natural kidneys are not functioning normally, requiring her to have daily dialysis treatments and probably another transplant as soon as she has regained full strength.
"They require a cancer-free scan and then a year wait prior to another transplant, which makes sense," she explains.
In spite of her continuing physical struggles, Hashimoto remains focused and optimistic and is now looking ahead to the Honolulu Marathon in December.
"There is a reason for it all," she concludes, still smiling and seemingly taking it all in stride. "Our family was already close, but this has brought us even closer and made us even stronger."