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Army couple responds to brain cancer diagnosis with a new commitment to healthful living

Army Col. Lenny Kness' whole world changed when he was diagnosed with brain cancer less than three years ago.

He and his wife, Lt. Col. Heather Kness, changed their lifestyles, their diets and their outlooks while he battled the astrocytoma discovered in Lenny's left lobe in 2011.

But one thing the couple never changed was their passion for running.

Lenny and Heather, married for more than 20 years, have long histories of pushing their bodies to the limit.

The pair run to take their minds off things, to solve problems and to day-dream, they said.

"It's something that we do together," said Lenny, chief of staff for the 1st Theater Sustainment Command. "It's kind of an 'us' time thing. It's something that we like to do as a couple."

The couple plan to compete in the first All American Marathon. The race, which will link Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, is scheduled for May 4.

It will serve as a farewell for the couple, who are set to leave Fort Bragg this summer.

But it will be a victory lap, too.

Less than three years after a doctor told Lenny he had 18 months to three years to live, he is considered healthy again.

A noise in the night signaled the beginning of the ordeal that would change their lives.

Bang.

Bang.

Bang.

It was a night in September 2011 in Afghanistan, and the sound came from inside Heather Kness' room on Bagram Airfield.

Exhausted from the day's work, she could not pinpoint the source at first.

Then, she realized that her husband was involuntarily kicking a footlocker.

"I just remember a loud banging. I would say in the middle of the night - I don't know when it was," Heather said. "I was disoriented, but when I woke up I realized Lenny was having a seizure - I mean a full-blown, very serious seizure.

"I just started yelling for help," she said.

Hours later, the Knesses learned of a tumor in Lenny's brain. Days later, at a military hospital in Germany, a doctor gave Lenny grim news of his life expectancy.

Lenny does not remember the seizure or the trip to the hospital.

He recalls coming to on a gurney, his wife by his side and a doctor waving a pen in his face.

"What is this?" the doctor demanded.

Lenny was confused. He didn't understand why the doctor was asking him the question.

"I started getting just a little testy," he recalls.

But Lenny remembers the tests, both in Afghanistan and Germany. And he remembers the doctor - sad and somber - who delivered the news about how long he might live.

Lenny took the news as well as could be expected and, with his wife by his side, remembers his response.

"That's humbling," he said.

Where other couples might have been resigned to their fates, Lenny and Heather were resolved to change things. Research led them to overhaul their diets and recommit themselves to healthy living.

When the couple returned to Fayetteville, they cooked their last steak. Years later, they still avoid dairy, meats - outside the rare fish - and nonorganic foods.

"It's the new normal," said Heather, who commands the 261st Multifunctional Medical Battalion. "You just try to control what you can control."

Heather, 43, said she realized her fears were counterproductive. She was helpless in many ways but found solace in focusing her energies on something she could change.

"I slowly learned the things I could control were nothing about the brain tumor," she said.

What she could change was diet and her state of mind.

"I turned a corner and started spending time on those things," she said.

"You have a choice. You can get mad. You can put your head in the sand about it. Or you can just say that's part of life," Heather said. "Are we going to control it, or is it going to control us?"

Lenny, 48, said he was determined to get on with his life.

"To me, the quality of life is everything over the quantity," he said, describing his determination to live and to live a great life. "You've got to keep a positive attitude and live the best you can."

"The new normal is not just forgetting about it," Heather added. "It's acknowledging it."

"At least you know," she said. "There's plenty of people that wake up one day, have a heart attack or get in a car accident and they don't live to see the next day. Maybe there's some goodness in knowing about it."

As the Knesses adjusted to their "new normal," officials say they became inspirations for soldiers on Fort Bragg.

Even as Lenny underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments, he did not complain. And he never missed his morning physical training.

Throughout the treatments, running became his escape, he said.

In the early days of Lenny's diagnosis, shortly after moving to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he persuaded a doctor to let him run the Army Ten-Miler with a team from Fort Bragg.

In past races, Lenny said, he ran with "blinders on" - focused on doing his best. But Lenny and Heather said they treated that year's race differently.

"It was the first Army Ten-Miler where we went sight-seeing," Lenny said of the race. "It was a nice way to feel normal."

While getting treatment at Walter Reed and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., the pair re-created that escape by running on trails near the hospital.

"It was what gave us a boost every day," he said.

In the years since, he has planned his treatment to allow him to run the Marine Corps Marathon, another Army Ten-Miler and marathons in Charlottesville, Va., and Albany, N.Y.

"We've always liked to run," Lenny said. "It was our dose of normal."

A few months after Lenny's diagnosis, doctors decided to aggressively attack his tumor.

The regimen of radiation and chemotherapy was successful in keeping the cancer in check, although the tumor will likely never be removed completely.

Lenny said doctors described the tumor as pepper mixed in with mashed potatoes.

You can't remove the pepper, he said, without damaging the potatoes - the brain.

"You can't cut it out, and it doesn't go into remission, so to speak," Heather said. "They slowed its growth. But you know that it's always going to be there."

Lenny finished treatment in May 2013 and has passed three check-ups since.

"Every three months, I wait for that - for them to walk into the room and say everything looks OK," Heather said. "It's the best feeling every three months."

Lenny considers himself lucky that his wife found him seizing that night in Afghanistan, as he credits the early detection of the tumor for the successful treatment.

"If she hadn't of witnessed the seizure . I wouldn't have known," he said.

At the time, Heather was an executive officer with the 44th Medical Brigade, deployed to Bagram.

Lenny was with the 1st Theater Sustainment Command in Kuwait but had pulled strings to spend Heather's birthday with her in Afghanistan.

Had he been alone, Lenny said, he likely would not have known about the seizure.

"I count this as a thankful event," he said. "We found out. We found out early, and we've been able to adjust to it and we've been able to treat it and go after it."

brooksd@fayobserver.com

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