No Ordinary Race, No Ordinary Runner
Two years after cancer recurrence and a liver transplant, SCE’s Phil Shin completes the 2021 Boston Marathon.
By Gabriela Ornelas
As Phil Shin willed himself to ascend Heartbreak Hill, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other as he had for more than 20 miles, he could feel his body protest the nearly six miles left to reach October’s Boston Marathon finish line. As easy as it was to start, it would be just as easy to stop.
“When I was going through the remainder of the race, I was trying to find as much grace as I could to show gratitude for being able to be there and to experience the pain,” said Shin, a senior advisor with Southern California Edison’s IT Solution Architecture. “This really was a dream come true and one of the mantras I kept repeating to myself was, ‘be grateful that you’re feeling this right now because three years ago, you had no business thinking that you’d be here.’”
Edison International President and CEO Pedro J. Pizarro, an avid runner himself, joined Shin recently for a run. “I am so happy for Phil, but can’t say I’m surprised at anything he’s done,” he said. “Finishing a marathon is an accomplishment in itself, but to do it after beating cancer shows what he’s made of. When we ran together, I could sense his determination and resilience in every stride he took.”
Few people can understand where Shin’s determination comes from. In April 2018, his passion for running, his love for his family and his own life were put in jeopardy with a single diagnosis: extensive testing confirmed evidence of a rare form of liver cancer. A longtime runner in relatively good health — who had just completed the 2018 LA Marathon, no less —Shin was shocked to learn of the racquetball-sized tumor growing in his liver. His doctors advised they act quickly; three weeks later, Shin underwent surgery to remove the tumor and give him the best chance at remission.
“All things indicated that I was going to be just fine, I was recovered. Because I was healthy and recovered from the surgery so quickly, I actually started running again just a month after I was discharged from the hospital,” said Shin, a 51-year-old resident of South Pasadena.
For the next six months, Shin’s gratitude for remission motivated him to get in the best shape of his life. He ran his fastest marathon to date, which qualified him for his dream race — the 2020 Boston Marathon – eventually postponed until this year because of the pandemic. But those aspirations were short-lived.
“My cancer had returned and to make it even worse, I would no longer qualify for the same surgery I had the first time. My only curative option would be a liver transplant,” Shin said.
Further complicating the situation, ironically, was his good health; his doctors informed him that it would likely be three years before his condition would qualify him for a deceased donor transplant. Shin’s only other alternative would be to seek a living donor willing to donate part of their liver.
“That was something that was completely out of my comfort zone because I would be asking people to essentially risk their own life to save my life,” said Shin. “After we sent that email, we later learned that we received an overwhelming response from our community.”
For months, Shin and his family waited while anonymous donors were screened by his medical team, not knowing if or when a match would be found. Finally, in August 2019, he received a text that changed his life. Unbeknownst to Shin, Mark Murphy, his friend of more than 20 years, had answered the call for help and was identified as a near-perfect match.
“Without revealing that he was being evaluated to be my donor, Mark reached out for advice on running. It turned out he was doing this for me so that he would be healthy enough to be accepted,” Shin said.
The transplant surgery could not have gone more smoothly. Both were discharged from the hospital after six days, with Shin’s cancer fully removed and Murphy coming away with a newfound love for running. Fast forward to this year, Shin became the first person to complete the Boston Marathon just two years after transplant surgery, in 3 hours and 23 minutes. Shin says it was gratitude and a new purpose in life that gave him the strength to cross the finish line.
“There are still thousands of people waiting for their transplant, there are still millions of people who are suffering with cancer. I get asked why I still carry that with me, and I carry it because I can,” Shin said. “My new purpose in life is service to cancer and transplant communities through my running.”
“Phil demonstrates Edison’s core values at work every day and that carries through to the rest of his life outside the office,” Pizarro said. “He is truly an inspiration for all of us.”
Shin ran the marathon on behalf of the American Liver Foundation, raising nearly $10,000, and is also a board member of two cancer foundations with an emphasis on running. Having qualified for the 2022 Boston Marathon during this year’s race, Shin has his eyes set on a new dream: running his first marathon alongside Murphy, in Boston.