“It was Wednesday, March 8, 2017 around 2:30 p.m. I was on break from our weekly staff meeting at work when my phone rang. I had [sic] been [semi]-expecting the call since I was waiting news on the results of my biopsy that I had on Monday of that week,” explained Sarah.
“I found the lump in breast myself. I was referred for a mammogram and ultrasound. Honestly, I could tell by how the techs and physician responded that it was bad news. When you receive phone calls after [just] hours by the physician himself, referring you for more tests, it’s not a good sign,” said Julie.
These are two stories of extraordinary women who have survived breast cancer and have not only lived to tell about it, but have lived to run through it.
Sarah finishing a race
Meet Sarah. She is a wife, mom, runner, and survivor of aggressive breast cancer. Sarah began running about 10 years ago in 2009. Before running, Sarah enjoyed playing soccer and – believe it or not – hated running. She despised running enough that she became a goalie so she didn’t have to run around as much as the rest of the soccer team. Eventually, she met running head-on when her entire college soccer team had to run three miles. “I was dead last to finish, and the next day, I walked into my coach’s office and quit the team. I didn’t think I could do it. Too much running; not for me.”
About 7 years after she quit the soccer team, Sarah noticed a friend registered for a race and she finally decided to give running a fair try. In short, that’s when she “caught the bug” and since then, Sarah has run eight full marathons, two 50K ultras, and one 50 miler.
Julie and her husband at Panerathon, a race that raises funds for breast cancer awareness
Julie’s story began a bit differently, but she also became more interested in running not long after her college soccer career. During middle and high school, Julie dabbled in the sport of running. Eventually, she volunteered at the local turkey trot with some of her high school girlfriends. The year after (and many years following), she and her friends continued to run said race and it became their tradition: “It makes me laugh to think my first experience with road races was mainly accomplished to eat donuts and turkey,” she said.
During her college years, Julie met her husband – a competitive runner. When they got married, she vowed to enter road race he entered, and she wasn’t expecting that he’d register for a race every weekend. Still, she kept her promise. Eventually, Julie grew from a leisurely runner to one who was on a quest to understand the science and nutrition of the sport. She has run full marathons, half marathons, and has completed triathlons. She found time to do all of these races as she and her husband created and raised a beautiful family of six children.
While Sarah and Julie have some aspects of their running careers in common, they learned of their breast cancer diagnoses in different ways.
Sarah received an expected phone call after a biopsy earlier in the week of March 17, 2017. “I stepped out of the room and my doctor asked me if I had a minute to talk. She sounded just as nervous as I was, and I knew this couldn’t mean good news. Through her thick accent, I heard, “‘I’m sorry, its breast cancer.'” While Sarah expected the phone call with the results, the news of her breast cancer diagnosis stunned her. “On one hand, it felt like she had just told me I had a cold and I should be better in a few days, and on the other hand, I couldn’t believe what she was saying…I don’t remember at what point I started crying, but I do remember two of my co-workers coming up to me and asking if I was ok. I hung up the phone, looked at them, and said, ‘I have to go home. I have cancer.'”
Sarah picked up her son and broke the news to him. The next day, she was back to work.
As a mom of six, Julie and her husband have a lot to juggle. When Julie received the call to undergo more test results and discuss those that had already come back, she drove to her appointment alone while her husband picked her youngest child up from the sitter.
It was December 12, 2012 – the same day that a troubled gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Julie was a third grade teacher at the time.
“That afternoon, I sat at the back of my classroom and stared at my computer screen in disbelief. In front of me sat my sweet third graders…The news report showed the live footage of Sandy Hook Elementary. When I heard the news [of my cancer diagnosis], I just stared at my hands. I thought, ‘Why me?’ and then immediately, ‘Why not me?’ There was no reason this should happen to me but also no reason that I should be spared from [such a] tragedy.”
Julie relied on her faith, specifically Exodus 14.14, to help her get through this time: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
As both Sarah and Julie are such avid runners, I was curious if they thought about how their diagnoses would affect their running.
Sarah said she didn’t think about how breast cancer would affect her running until I asked her such a question during our interview. Ultimately, her biggest concern after her diagnosis was living to see her next birthday. “I think I just assumed [running] would be much different, but I wasn’t bothered by that and it was one of the last things on my priority list. It’s funny how in one instant your life can completely change and suddenly, PRs, Garmin data, and shitty long runs seem like such a petty thing to be concerned about.”
Alternative, running was one of the first thoughts that entered Julie’s mind: “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I remember thinking, ‘But I’m healthy; I just ran a marathon?!'” It seemed like quite a blow for someone so healthy to receive a cancer diagnosis.
But both of these women – through their treatment – kept on keeping on. Both Sarah and Julie remained active as they tackled breast cancer head on.
Sarah had a very aggressive form of breast cancer that required intense treatment. Originally, her oncology team thought they’d found just one tumor. An MRI displayed four. What was initially a 12-week treatment plan was upped to 20 weeks, and it included some of the most potent chemotherapy drugs available. Sarah began to lose her hair just two days after treatment.
Sarah, in the midst of active treatment, inspiring other runners
And…despite the fatigue of chemotherapy, Sarah continued to run races – sometimes the day after receiving chemo through the port in her chest.
Sarah completed chemotherapy in August 2018, and in September, she had a double-mastectomy. Once she completed her final round of treatment, she underwent reconstructive surgery and was then able to say she was DONE.
Although active treatment was currently behind her, Sarah defines the days following treatment as some of her hardest. “The area that been most affected is with my extreme fatigue and memory loss. I know what it’s like to be tired; I’m a mom, a wife, a long distance runner – but nothing could prepare me for the fatigue that cancer brings. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.” Sarah often returned home from work at 4 p.m. and slept from then until 6 a.m. the next day. Her son helped by bringing her food in bed and enjoying games and movie nights.
Today, Sarah still suffers from memory loss. “I have a hard time remembering things now. My once steel trap memory has been replaced by forgetting what I did yesterday [and] what I need to get done today.”
Like Sarah, Julie also underwent chemotherapy and multiple surgeries. Fourteen days after her cancer diagnosis, Julie underwent a double-mastectomy. Keep in mind that she was caring for multiple children at the time, one of which was just two years old. Julie was thankful for the ability to pick up her son just a few short days after her surgery.
Shortly after surgery, she began a 12-week cycle of chemotherapy. In Julie’s words, “[chemo] did not go smoothly.” Her surgeon punctured her lung multiple times which caused it to collapse. While this condition was painfully rendered, Julie couldn’t help but fear that her lung would collapse again if she participated in physical activity. Her doctors assured her that it wouldn’t, and that’s when she held tight to her goals and registered for a race. “Part of my recovery always involved registering for a race. It made me laugh at the irony and also reminded me that I was not defined by a diagnosis. I used the race as motivation to keep a positive attitude and to keep moving.”
After treatment, Julie underwent reconstructive surgery as well as a hysterectomy.
Both women cannot say enough how running has helped them through their treatment. Sarah is certain that running gave her body the strength it needed to overcome cancer. She also discussed the health benefits of running: “Exercise is proven to help reduce the risk of cancer, so I see any running I do as a positive thing to help prevent reoccurance. I think being in shape and generally healthy, aside from my cancer, helped tremendously in the recovery process.”
Julie and two of her children at a race
Julie experienced the physical benefits as well as multiple mental health benefits: “Running trains my mind and helps to lessen anxiety. I can’t explain it. The rhythm of putting on foot in front of the other and feeling my breath fall into beat is extremely soothing and empowering.”
Even though Sarah and Julie have won the battle, they continue to fight the war that is breast cancer.
Sarah continues to undergo medical treatment by means of a daily pill and monthly injection. At just 33 years old, she is going through medically-induced menopause. “The shot is to block my ovaries from producing any estrogen, and the oral med [ication] is to prevent any other estrogen from getting into my body. My cancer is estrogen positive meaning that estrogen is food for my type of cancer, so, at the age of 33 I was put into a drug induced menopause which comes with a bunch of side effects. I am scheduled to be on these medications for the next 10 years.”
Once a morning runner, Sarah is now bound to running later in the day. When she wakes, she experiences intense joint pain as well as a burning sensation in her feet.
Julie, who is also on an estrogen blocker, experiences physical pain as well and must constantly remind herself to stretch and keep her muscles loose as she runs. “Even years after surgery, my upper body can be very tight. I have to intentionally think about not tightening any major muscle groups while running. When I first started running again after reconstruction, I had to buy a front zip Under Armour running bra. I couldn’t stretch my arms to get into any other kind.” Still, Julie attempts to run every other day, and she perpetually tells herself that pain after treatment doesn’t have to define her running.
Sarah and Julie have a lot in common regarding their journeys, and they’ve also had some very different experiences. One thing that both of these strong women wish to convey is that no matter how many times we have to readjust, change, or find new motivation – it’s possible to keep on moving.
Sarah finishing the Boston Marathon
Sarah continues to run in ways that make her happy, and she advises the rest of us to do the same. She completed the Boston Marathon during her active treatment, and after that, she took a long break that she knew she needed. “There are so many other important things in life to stress about; don’t let running be one, too. This is what we do for fun, so keep it fun! Just take one day at a time and listen to your body. … If you need a break, take it. If you want to run hard, run hard – but don’t force yourself to do something you don’t find joy and peace in.”
Julie offers the same encouragement for survivors. “I really encourage survivors going through treatment to keep moving. It seems paradoxical; why should moving more increase energy when you feel lethargic? It’s really hard to explain but that’s how our bodies work. We are designed to move and our hearts are meant to pump. Healing happens when our body systems are working and moving.”
The future looks bright for Sarah and Julie.
While Sarah is taking a break from long distance running, she plans to continue to run half marathons and other shorter distances. At some point, Sarah hopes to tackle the New York City Marathon.
Julie hopes to break the 2-hour mark in the half marathon distance, run another marathon someday, and begin running and hiking more trails.
This is probably one of the most inspiring, endearing interviews I’ve done for the Running Shoes Series. I cannot thank Sarah and Julie enough for sharing their amazing stories and fully illustrating the statement, “don’t give up.” After months of fear, unknowns, intense treatments, multiple surgeries, and the after-effects of all of it – Sarah and Julie continue to run, set goals, and readjust when necessary. They are resilient, but they are flexible – a lesson most of us runners need to truly learn.
You can keep up with Sarah and Julie on Instagram:
I’ll end with one of Sarah’s favorite quotes, as spoken by elite athlete Gabrielle Grunewald: “I may have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have me.”
Thanks for joining us on Running Shoes.