Phil Shin was in peak health condition, running at least two marathons a year, when he was diagnosed with Stage 2 liver cancer in January 2018. It came as a total shock to the South Pasadena resident and his family.
“I was in pretty good health and running consistently, but cancer doesn’t care about things like that,” Shin, 49, told the Review this week after the latest chapter in his comeback tale — a 36:14 finish in the 5K Tiger Run on Saturday, complete with a support team of family and friends wearing “PHIL” T-shirts bearing his picture.
“I was never symptomatic. We just kind of stumbled on the diagnosis, so I got really lucky. I decided to use running as my outlet to deal with it.”
In May 2018, Shin underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his liver. Within two months, he returned to his job in IT and started running again, even participating in the REVEL Big Bear marathon and qualifying for the Boston Marathon — a longtime goal of his.
“I was over the moon and the neighborhood went nuts,” Shin said. “Just qualifying for Boston is hard enough, but to do it after recovering from liver cancer — I couldn’t put my head around how I was able to accomplish that, but I did.”
Shin’s celebrations, however, were cut short when it was discovered during a follow-up exam that the tumor had returned. It was just weeks after he had qualifying for Boston.
“We got the even-more frustrating news that the only curative path would be a liver transplant,” Shin said.
“There were only two options: get a new liver from a deceased donor or from a living donor. My age, health and fitness level were actually strikes against me, and I was told that I would be looking at a minimum of a few years before I could get a deceased donor’s liver. My family and I had lived with cancer long enough and we weren’t willing to sign up for another couple of years.”
Unbeknownst to Shin, his longtime friend and fellow runner Mark Murphy in Portland, Ore., surprised him via text message by announcing that he had been confirmed as Shin’s liver donor, several months later.
“It came as a complete surprise, and at that moment I knew I had my shot at a second chance,” Shin said. “To get your second chance at life, especially when you know that this is your only option for curing your cancer — I’m eternally grateful and the relationship that Mark and I have is even stronger now.”
A month later, on Sep. 11, 2019, Shin had the liver-transplant surgery. Within three weeks of his procedure, he started running again. The Tiger Run 5K was his first big race since surgery, and to celebrate his three-month “transplant-versary,” around 30 of Shin’s friends and family surprised him at the race by wearing T-shirts with his name and photo on them, in the style of the Obama “Hope” posters.
“Our neighbor Mark Swift came up with the idea to celebrate the fact that I was running less than three months after having my liver transplant,” Shin said. “As soon as I saw close to 30 people walking towards me wearing these blue shirts with my face on them, I cried my eyes out. The love and support of this community has reminded me that I was never in this alone, and everyone has been there to support me from day one. It’s a big reason why I’ve been able to recover so well.”
Since his initial diagnosis in 2018, Shin has run five marathons — including the London Marathon and Mountains 2 Beach Marathon in Ojai — and qualified for Boston three times. With the recent Tiger Run successfully under his belt, Shin plans to run the L.A. Marathon again in March with Murphy, followed by the Boston Marathon in April.
“Something transformational happened to me throughout this entire experience,” Shin said. “I had accepted the fact that I had cancer, but I made the decision not to stop running. One of the commitments I made to myself was that I wasn’t going to lie around and wait for cancer to catch me — I was going to try to outrun it.”