UCSD surgeon walks 26.2 miles in his cancer patient’s shoes

UCSD Health orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Flint and his patient Colin Jackson talk during a recent office visit.

After rebuilding marathon runner Colin Jackson’s hip, Dr. James Flint joined him, step for step, in a walk, though the two were in different states.


Just after 5 a.m. Jan. 17, Colin Jackson and his UC San Diego oncologist, Dr. James Flint, took the first steps of what would end up being a 26.2-mile trek over the next 12-plus hours.

Jackson was in Phoenix and Flint was in Mission Beach, but the two were walking a marathon together — staying in close touch throughout the day with phone calls, texted photos of the sights they passed and screen grabs of the miles they had completed and calories they’d burned.

For Flint, his marathon walk was the fulfillment of a promise to his patient and friend. For Jackson, a 39-year-old veteran marathon runner, it was a redemption.

With Flint’s help, Jackson said, he’s alive today and back on his feet after undergoing treatment and major surgery in 2019 for a rare form of bone cancer that destroyed his right hip and the upper part of his right femur. Having Flint along for the walk — even if he was 360 miles away — meant everything to Jackson.

“Dr. Flint has made such a difference this entire journey,” said Jackson, a commercial photographer who lives in Pacific Beach. “I can’t put it into words because it means so much.”

Dr. James Flint took this selfie on his marathon walk along Mission Bay on Jan. 17.
Dr. James Flint took this selfie on his marathon walk along Mission Bay on Jan. 17 to send to his patient Colin Jackson, who was walking the same distance simultaneously in Arizona.

Jackson has yet to finish his cancer battle. In March last year he learned it had spread to his lungs, and since then he has undergone a second recurrence in his lungs. But Jackson remains grateful because, in a way, he’s been living on borrowed time for years.

In January 2014, a doctor in Arizona told Jackson he wouldn’t live to see his next birthday if he didn’t change his life. At the time, he was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, weighed nearly 300 pounds and didn’t exercise. So Jackson set a goal to lose weight, get in shape and run the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon by the following January.

A year later and 106 pounds lighter, he accomplished his goal, and over the next three years he ran eight more marathons.

But in 2018, a week after completing the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, Jackson was attacked by a stranger near his home in Pacific Beach. Among his injuries was a compound fracture of his right ankle. After recovering from ankle surgery, he tried to run a marathon in Texas but couldn’t finish due to shooting pain in his right leg.

Jackson said he went to several doctors and was misdiagnosed four times before he met with Flint, an orthopedic surgeon and oncologist at Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health in La Jolla. Flint diagnosed Jackson with chondrosarcoma, a rare cancer that originates in the bone.

Colin Jackson is photographed at UC San Diego Health.

Jackson said getting the news that his running days were over was worse for him emotionally than learning he had cancer.

“Running was so instrumental to my life,” Jackson said. “It taught me so much more than just how to be fast. It taught me how to focus mentally and internally on the reasons I was unhealthy before, and it gave me the mental toughness that I used to beat cancer.”

By the time it was diagnosed, Jackson’s cancer was in his hip bone, femur, the capsule around his hip joint and his gluteus and quadricep muscles. On Sept. 27, 2019, he underwent surgery to remove the affected muscles, reconstruct his hip and hip joint with metal and mesh parts and rebuild his leg bone.

“That’s a huge surgery,” Flint said. “That is tough to recover from, but you have a patient who was healthy before cancer, relatively young, was ambitious and wanted to get back to doing everything.”

Colin Jackson uses a walker after his 2019 surgery to rebuild his hip and leg following a bone cancer battle.

After the surgery, Jackson would return to Flint’s office every three months for a checkup, and right away he started talking about his dream to run another marathon. His goal was to retrace the course of his first marathon in Arizona and use it as a way to raise awareness about sarcoma. But Flint was opposed to the idea because he feared Jackson would dislocate his new hip and suffer a serious injury.

“He said, ‘Can I run again?’ and I said, ‘I don’t recommend it,’ ... but Colin was motivated,” Flint said. “When he brought up running a marathon again, I said, half jokingly, ‘I’m OK if you walk a marathon, and if you do it, I’ll do it with you.’”

Jackson took Flint at his word and that day finally arrived in January. Because of his responsibilities under COVID-19 rules to UCSD Health and the Navy — because he’s an active-duty medical officer — Flint wasn’t allowed to travel out of state with Jackson. Instead, they came up with the idea of walking the 26.2 miles separately but together.

Flint did no training, walked alone most of the way and said that by mile 24, he was in all kinds of pain.

But Jackson, who trained all year and walked with a support team of friends and family, found the 12-hour, 32-minute, 32-second trip so easy that he celebrated afterward at a bar. He’s now looking to do another marathon walk later this year.

Colin Jackson (right) is joined by his support team on his 26.2-mile walk in Arizona on Jan. 17.

Flint’s marathon days are over. But he said he’s happy he did it because the experience gave him a better appreciation for his patients and what they go through learning to walk again and the endurance it takes to rebuild muscles after surgery.

“Being out there alone gave me a lot of time to think about my patients and spend time praying and contemplating how to better serve them,” Flint said. ◆