Mike Maya remembers all too well what it was that started his passion for running.

After all, it was an experience that quite possibly could have taken his life.

“My cancer is the reason why I started running,” Maya stated simply.

The 35-year-old Playa del Rey resident says it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and fully recovered from the disease that he truly began to see the benefits of long-distance running. Having overcome the toughest battle of his life, Maya says that running has given him another way to test himself against challenges.

“Running is a great release,” said Maya, who grew up in Pasadena and has lived in Playa del Rey for two years with his wife, Lisa. “It’s just you and no one else. You’re constantly pushing yourself and challenging yourself.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment when you’re done with every single run.”

Now, nearly two years after he was diagnosed with cancer and a couple of half marathons later, Maya is preparing for one of the ultimate tests in the sport: the 26.2-mile marathon. Maya, a membership manager for Spectrum Athletic Club in Santa Monica, is one of 20 athletes participating in the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation program who are currently training to run the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon in support of the organization.

Athletes taking part in the DetermiNation program dedicate their training and participation in such endurance events as marathons, half marathons and triathlons to the fight against cancer by raising funds and awareness. Maya, who is involved in a 16-week training program for the March 20 marathon, achieved his goal of raising $1,500 in the first month and has raised more than $1,800 in total for the cancer society.

The cancer survivor says that his Los Angeles Marathon run will allow him to do his part to give back and spread awareness to others who may be struggling with the disease. While he is one of the fortunate patients who have successfully defeated cancer, Maya recalled how the diagnosis caused him to immediately fear the worst case scenario.

“When you hear the word ‘cancer’ Š the actual thoughts of ‘am I going to die’ cross your mind. They change you and who you are and your perspective on everything,” he described.

Maya remembered that one of the most difficult moments was having to break the news to his family. He particularly sought support from his father, Ed, who had previously been diagnosed with prostate cancer and since recovered.

Ed Maya, who battled prostate cancer at age 60, echoed his son’s reaction noting that fear is the most dominant emotion for those receiving a cancer diagnosis. But his and Mike’s cases were similar in that they had early detection and good prognosis, Ed Maya said.

“I told him that this is one of the struggles you’re going to go through but this won’t be the last struggle,” the father recalled.

Following surgery, Mike Maya also had to receive radiation treatment for cancer that spread to his lymph nodes while he was working two jobs. The treatments proved successful, as he soon learned he was cancer free, but he stressed that “listening to my body” is what helped get him early diagnosis.

Faced with a life altering experience, Maya said he learned to improve how he interacts with the people in his life.

“The biggest thing for me is being honest with everybody, with my family and friends, and just appreciating the little things,” he said.

Through his job in the fitness industry he says he is able to pass the message of living a healthy life on to other people.

April Ahumada, a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation program in Southern California, spoke of Maya’s positive attitude and called his story of survival “phenomenal.” Maya and the other athletes involved in the fundraising program express a lot of commitment to the effort, she said.

“It’s inspiring to see what he went through because it really is a mental and physical struggle,” she said. “When other people see his story it’s contagious and infectious.”

Since becoming cancer free, Maya said he felt an obligation to help people, and running in support of the cancer society has provided a tool to do just that. Last year he entered a half marathon race with his father, an event which Ed Maya called “our anti-cancer run.”

Mike then became determined to tackle the next level of competitive running, the marathon. He explained his rationale, saying, “If I can beat cancer, I now feel like I can do anything.”

Ed Maya is encouraged by his son’s pursuit of another challenge in life.

“It meant he wanted to accomplish something and keep struggling, and that made me happy,” the elder Maya said.

Though he is yet to complete a full marathon, Maya knows that he will need to battle through some pain, which he says is part of the fun. In reference to the marathon’s rather new finish line near the Pacific Ocean, Maya, who hopes to complete his first 26-mile race in under four and a half hours, envisions the end as the best part.

“I’ll probably be looking at the Santa Monica Pier like it’s Heaven,” he said.

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