PITTSBORO — There was a time in his life, just four short years ago, when Corbie Hill would have found it difficult to envision himself as a runner.
Much less a fast one.
But the 39-year-old Pittsboro resident is definitely that, and a racer, too. And if you’re around the Chatham Community Library around 7 most weekday mornings, and you spot a lean, tattooed man striding by with a receding hairline and two fashionable earrings, rest assured that it’s Hill.
And as of this past month, he’s something else: a two-time leukemia survivor.
It was back on May 12 that Hill made this new diagnosis public with a Facebook post, which began with: “Hey, everyone. Here’s a long update. It starts with the words ‘my cancer came back’…”
A few months before, back in December, Hill was the fastest he’d ever been. In the last month of 2020, he logged three 5K runs in times under 21 minutes, a pace for the 3.1-mile distance that most recreational runners could only dream of.
As winter waned and spring approached, though, Hill began to feel fatigued. He saw a drop in his endurance. His 5K times began to be slower and slower, and slower still.
“But then I couldn’t break 22:00,” Hill wrote in the Facebook post. “And then I couldn’t break 23:00; then 24:00 eluded me. Same effort, same energy, but diminished returns.”
Then there was the pain and the anemia.
“I had a headache, like a piercing headache that lasted for eight straight days,” he said recently, recalling the worst of that stretch. “Nothing would touch it. And just this unimaginable exhaustion. I went from being someone who would run a 5K and lift weights for an hour and then go hiking to someone who couldn’t get off the couch. It was ridiculous.”
His wife Rachel said that between the pain, the anemia and going off original cancer medication led to “a serious nosedive” for Corbie.
“He was so exhausted all he could do was lie down, and even breathing was labored,” she said.
Hill’s oncology team at UNC Hospitals, the group which nursed him back from an initial diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) in 2017, began to methodically look at the possible explanations for his increasing lack of energy. It was an attempt to rule out everything that didn’t mean a return of his cancer.
“They knew something was wrong, something was weird,” he said.
By April, as the promise of summer approached and the world began to think of life after a pandemic, Hill learned what he had suspected all along: the leukemia was active in his marrow again.
“I wasn’t surprised,” he said, “when I found out that was what was causing it.”
Hill’s CLL diagnosis infers in its name that it’s chronic — “chronic is in its nature,” he says. Remission isn’t something that’s a part of the equation for CLL sufferers; rather, it’s a matter of using drug treatments to reduce the leukemia to low or undetectable levels.
“I mean, it’s always in there, it’s always in my bloodstream, you know, or, I guess also in my bone marrow,” he said. “So it’s just a question of level — not a question of it ever really going away.”
In his May Facebook post, Hill wrote that back in 2017, the leukemia “never hurt.”
The 2021 diagnosis was different.
“There was a lot of pain, and my exhaustion (leukemia’s calling card) was insurmountable, severe,” he wrote. “I learned new definitions of patience. The muscles I’d built through years of working out wasted away to nothing. I became weak, exhausted, useless.”
Which was incredibly frightening for someone who had transformed his body after that first go-round with leukemia.
Hill, who had the lean build of a serious runner before he became one, works as a staff writer for Duke Magazine, the official alumni magazine of Duke University. He’s well known around Pittsboro, where he lives, for his writing skills — he worked as a freelancer for years before getting the Duke gig — and for gigs of another kind: as a songwriter and guitarist and vocalist, performing in local bands and working as a music producer.
But as a runner, a racer?
It’s not something Hill had done as an adult. You’d more likely to find him talking about his passion for “Star Trek” or one of the more than 100 bands which show up under his Facebook page’s “artists” section, or kayaking on Jordan Lake with his wife and their two daughters.
After that cancer diagnosis four years ago, things changed.
It’s hard to imagine a cancer diagnosis as a blessing. But it’s always life-changing. As he came back from his 2017 diagnosis and began his medical treatment, Hill started hitting the gym — something he’d never done before. As 2018 approached, he became a regular at the YMCA in Pittsboro. His increased energy seemed to feed his workouts; his workouts — “I just tried out the free weights and stumbled my way through it” — helped increase his energy. That boost made his occasional canoeing trips with family (Rachel joined him at the Y) and friends more fun. He adding kayaking to his menu of activities and his energy level increased even more.
Then Hill gave running a try — hopping on a treadmill one day purely out of curiosity.
“And I was like, this is actually fun,” he said.
Within a few months he was running outdoors.
“And,” he said, “I got hooked.”
Hill eventually entered his first 5K race, setting a goal to run the course in 24 minutes or less. His time was closer to 23 minutes than 24.
“I thought I was just going out there and running,” he said. “I didn’t realize that I’d gotten to a point where I could move really fast. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, let’s see how far this goes. You know, why not be good at this?”
He kept at it through 2019 and 2020; not even the COVID-19 pandemic could slow him down. Even though there were no more in-person races, Hill took part in “virtual” events and kept up his regimen, adding intervals — repeated short but high-intensity runs with small rest breaks in between — to his weekly running calendar. All that work led to his three sub-21 minute 5Ks in December, reaching a goal he’d set for himself — before his leukemia made its reappearance.
It’s a gross understatement to say that Hill is no stranger to cancer. Eleven months to the day after his initial 2017 diagnosis, his wife learned she had breast cancer. Because of the prevalence of breast cancer in her family, Rachel, at age 35, decided to opt for a double mastectomy. After a successful surgery, her treatments now consist of hormone therapy.
“It has been kind of surreal as you might imagine,” she said. “We were diagnosed with cancer within about a year of each other, which is a little ridiculous. I have a strong family history of breast cancer so I think it was a little less of a shock. Despite going to the same hospital our treatments/experiences have felt more different than similar, with Corbie’s being more of a steady, long term need.”
She’s healthy, but for the couple’s daughters — Sarah, 11, and Lucy, 9 — seeing their mother and father each battle a life-threatening disease is something even Hill struggles to process.
“It’s been such a part of their young life so far that I can’t really tell you how they’re handling it, because they just seem like themselves,” Hill said.
Rachel said that even though “kids can be pretty resilient,” she knows they worry.
“We also have lots of offers of help and support from family and friends, which is invaluable,” she said.
Hill said Sarah plays piano and has a deep appreciation for classic country music.
“She’s all about Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn,” he said. “She understands at her young age that this is ‘hard times’ music, and hard times music makes a lot of sense. I think after several years of this” — seeing her parents go through the cancer journey — “I think she really understands: Yeah, life’s hard. You do talk about the hard stuff, but you find the light in it, too. I think she appreciates it on that level, and gets it, and uses that music as part of her worldview because she knows that from her experiences.”
Just like Hill has done himself.
Back in May, in his announcement about his diagnosis, in the midst of the extreme pain and anemia, he was intensely reflective about his future.
“I’m ready to get back on my feet,” Hill wrote in the May 12 Facebook post. “I’m ready to hike and kayak and run and lift weights and cook and play music and do the things that make me feel like a complete person. I know none of that will happen in a hurry, but I’m confident it’s coming back. At this point, I’ll settle for having the energy to stay awake all day … Baby steps. Baby steps.”
He wrote that he wasn’t as “bold and glowing and fearless” as he was in 2017.
“Now I feel like I’m keeping my footing in a hurricane,” he wrote. “Now I feel like disaster is the nature of the universe and the best I can do is scurry from foxhole to foxhole.”
But Hill also wrote that despite the cancer that had so relentlessly attacked him and his wife, he sincerely believed he was living his best life.
“I’m married to someone who gets me like no one else ever has or will,” his post read. “Somehow in this enormous, chaotic world I found my match, and we hold each other up no matter what gets thrown at us. I have my dream job. My kids are great kids. I play music with talented, creative people and live in a town where I fit, where I make sense. I never expected any of these things.
“I think about quantum realities sometimes, and if there are parallel universes, in most of them I’m dead already. My body turned on itself by 35, and without advanced medicine my leukemia comes flooding back, inexorable as the sea and just as lethal. As sh*tty a time as I’ve had this spring, I live in one of the good universes. I’m alive. I’m with Rachel. There’s a fighting chance that I’ll stick around. That’s enough. It has to be.”
Since then, the new treatment his oncologist prescribed for this latest bout with CLL has done its work. Doctors suspect the medication which did so well beginning in 2017 stopped being effective, possibly because of a mutation with his leukemia.
“You know, it was working,” Hill said, “but not enough.”
A switch in medications — he takes pills; CLL doesn’t respond to chemotherapy — and some blood transfusions helped him feel better almost immediately after his spring diagnosis. It made Hill feel strong enough to take two camping trips in June and even embark on some hikes.
It was difficult for him physically, but also a relief.
“I think it was about a week or so before I felt kind of normal,” he said. “I was coming back from much more severe anemia than last time. This time, I just couldn’t stay awake. When I was really in the throes of this thing, it sucked because I was so sick and felt so bad that I couldn’t stay awake. But then when I fell asleep, I couldn’t stay asleep. It was awful.”
The CLL indicators are all falling now.
“We’re in a positive place,” Hill said.
The long-term outlook? His doctors hope this treatment protocol will last 10 years. And there are backup therapies in place, too, and research into new therapies as well. CLL is rare for someone of his age — it usually strikes an older population — but his oncology team is hopeful and realistic about keeping Hill alive for another 40 years or more.
In the meantime, Hill is running again. His 5K times are hovering around the 25-minute mark, but that’s perfectly fine.
He’s been there before. He knows now he has the time to work on his speed.
In the lyrics from “Survivor Song,” which Hill wrote and recorded in 2019 with his band Land Is, he paints another hopeful note.
“Room by room we all face a different beast,” the song’s last verse reads. “When we come to the table that cancer sets, That mindless thief of time, That horrible weight on my mind …
“That rotten chord I won’t let spoil,
My survivor song.”
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