From Boston Marathoner to Cancer Patient

This was not part of the training plan. But then again, the training almost never goes according to plan. Some days are smooth, and other days rock you and bring you to your knees. Both types are important for progress and growth.  

May 10, 2022 started off pretty well. I had recovered enough from recent surgery to do yoga with my beloved teacher and mentor, enjoyed a delicious salad for lunch from my dear friend, and was looking forward to a fun and relaxing summer with my family. After lunch while chatting with a friend I saw a notification pop up on my email with the subject line, “New Test Result.” My initial response was to keep chatting with my friend and check it later. However, feelings of anxiety and panic started to flood my body. My chest tightened, hands started trembling and my heart was racing faster. I could no longer hear any of the words coming out of my friend’s mouth. I told my friend I’d call her back. I opened the email with my shaking hands and saw the words I feared but never really expected to see there. “Carcinoma. High grade. Present in margins.” As I scanned the pathology report trying to understand what all of the words meant, I felt my heart rate increase even further. My vision seemed to narrow and my world came to a complete stop. I had just received a life changing cancer diagnosis over email. We have dealt with a lot of cancer in our family, but nothing could have prepared me for my own diagnosis.

Scared and alone pre-surgery

The next several hours are a blur. I called my husband to help me decipher the report and tried to get in touch with my doctor’s office. The trauma of receiving a cancer diagnosis was being compounded by the fact that I had no doctor or medical professional to speak with me about the pathology report, explain the diagnosis, and discuss potential treatment options. Just three weeks earlier I had run the Boston Marathon. How did I go from Boston marathoner to cancer patient in three short weeks? How would I possibly tell my kids? I had always pictured myself growing old with my husband and having grandchildren, but suddenly felt like this vision was in question. My own mortality was staring me straight in the face and it was not a comfortable feeling.

When I ran Boston in April, I fell at mile 8, hurting my shoulder and ankle. In the later miles of the race as I pushed through the pain wondering why I fell and why I was up most of the night with puking children I thought, “it’s going to take me a while to integrate this.” I knew there was some lesson to be learned but that it may not be revealed to me immediately. One of the things that I love about running, and distance running in particular, is that it is a contained field upon which to explore my inner landscape. Each time I run a marathon I learn something new about myself and the world around me. Each time I go deeper. I come away with pearls of wisdom that can be extrapolated and applied to the larger canvas of life. After I fell in Boston, I got up, focused, and got the best out of myself that day. And my best was good enough to re-qualify. I learned that in the face of adversity I can persevere. 

Navigating a breast cancer diagnosis has been devastating and emotionally draining. I have spent many nights in bed crying asking why. I know that I am fortunate that my cancer was caught early and is very treatable. However, the treatments do not come without significant side effects, and I will live in fear of it returning for the rest of my life. The psychological toll should not be underestimated. Although we did plenty of fun things this summer, I also feel like I spent half of the summer in doctors’ offices and on the phone with insurance companies. However, just like I ran with the sore shoulder and ankle in Boston, I am proceeding through this as best I can. I may be down, but I am far from out. I know from past experiences that I have the will and spirit to triumph and that is exactly what I plan to do here. I will persevere, I will integrate the lessons, and I will thrive.  

Back to the Basics

Since the New York Marathon last month, I have focused on two things: 1) Making All The Things from Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky’s Run Fast East Slow Cookbook and 2) Getting Stronger. Since eating All The Things hasn’t yet resulted in effortless six minute miles (or any six minute miles for that matter), I must need to focus more on part two.

Like many athletes who have faced injures and multiple visits to the physical therapist’s office, I have a litany of prescribed exercises that I should be doing to correct imbalances, stave off injury and keep my body strong and healthy. Or as Mitt Romney might say, I have binders of exercises. Do I do these exercises on a regular basis? No. I do them when something hurts. And then I focus on that particular area that is speaking to me at the time. Since the body works together as one kinetic chain, however, this is neither a smart nor a workable plan.

I am a flashcard nerd. I always used flashcards to study in school. I used them for tests in high school and college, and I used them to pass the Virginia, Texas and Idaho bar exams. So enter the Physical Therapy Flashcards!


PT Flashcards

Here is how they work and how you can make your own set of PT Flashcards:

  1. Take one section/color for each body area you want to strengthen and/or maintain. You can see here that I have Core, Hips, Glutes, Legs/Feet and Stretch(ing).
  2. In each section, write your exercises on a different color of flashcards.
  3. Set your timer for a prescribed period of time. I do 15 minutes for the first 4 categories and then 5 for stretching at the end. Total of 20 minutes.
  4. While the timer is running go through your categories pulling an exercise from the front. Do the exercise in the section and then put it in the back of the section.
  5. Do this a few times a week! Enjoy! Get stronger! Run without getting hurt! When you come across a new exercise that you like, add it to your cards!

So far, this has been a great way for me to keep up with a variety of my Physical Therapy exercises, focusing on all areas of my body that need attention. It is my hope that this will be good maintenance exercise (in addition to the lifting/regular strength training I do) which will help prevent injury.

Speaking of preventing injury, if you are looking for a good book to read on the topic or need some exercises for your flashcards, I highly recommend Running Rewired by Jay Dicharry. I went to see Jay in Bend last summer, but now you don’t have to because he wrote it all in this book for you! He is an expert and writes in a straightforward and funny manner. The book has specific exercises and routines with photos and detailed instructions on how to do them. (Bonus: Mel Lawrence is one of the models!) Highly recommend!


And when you’re done with all of that hard work don’t forget to refuel with some good nutrition from All The Things in Run Fast East Slow. In fact, I think I hear a Superhero Muffin calling my name…