By the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2008, Darcy and I had run five marathons. The most recent had been the Brookings, SD marathon which we ran on May 10, as the various tests and procedures that would confirm my diagnosis later that month were already underway.
We planned to run the Twin Cities Marathon that October and had already registered for it. Our plans changed and the sense of normalcy we had been enjoying came to a screeching halt on May 29. My doctor delivered the words “You have cancer. Two different kinds.” I was driving home from work when we were able to connect on the phone after missing opportunities earlier in the day. I asked her if I should pull over. She said “You probably should.” I knew then what the news was going to be.
Appointments, decisions, surgeries, chemotherapy, more decisions all took center stage for the next few months. I continued to run when I could. It saved my sanity and gave me strength to draw on.
A lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy on July 17, 2008 was followed by a re-excision on August 14. The re-excision failed to get the remaining DCIS, so I would have one more surgery to consider. In the meantime, I underwent four rounds of chemo from September to November. Months after my diagnosis, I finally looked and felt like a cancer patient. My hair was gone and my energy was low, but I still walked and ran when I could. On my worst days a few blocks was all I could muster, but they were a grateful few blocks.
By chance, the bilateral mastectomies I had chosen took place on December 17, five months to the day since my first surgery. A second 17. There would be no running for a few weeks, but I hit the road again for the first time when my sisters and I were in Las Vegas in late January of 2009.
I continued to heal physically and emotionally and we set our sights on our next marathon. It seemed fitting that the Kansas City Marathon happened to fall on October 17, 2009, ten months to the day since my mastectomies. We committed to running it, and also committed to finishing together, something we had not done in our previous marathons. It was important to us after all we had been through with my cancer treatment and surgeries.
The spring of 2009 brought me and my new flat chest terrain out on to our streets and trails. My self-consciousness was matched, stride for stride, by the unfettered joy of being healthy and whole in new ways. Exactly five months after having my breasts removed, I ran a local half-marathon on May 17. A third 17. I wore a pink top, a color I have never been a fan of, to help insure people knew I was a woman running. It was the only time I wore that much pink. As I kept running in the coming months, the self-consciousness receded. I came to appreciate the ease of no running bras and the nice feel of a breeze no longer blocked by mammary mass. Mainly, I tapped into a deeper level of gratitude fueled by simply being able-bodied and alive.
In October, we headed to Kansas City for our first post-cancer marathon, just the two of us, after dropping Sam off with my family in Iowa. We spent an enjoyable couple of days in downtown Kansas City, leading up to the marathon start on Sunday morning, October 17, 2009. A fourth 17. I was filled with the best kind of anticipation and we were ready. There were hills, walk breaks, fountains, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” blasting out of a speaker as we headed up one of those hills. My emotions were mostly positive and happy, but I ran through some grief that day too. Step by step, mile by mile, we were reaching our goal.
This picture, taken at the 26-mile marker, captures our shared determination. Soon after, the smiles came as we crossed the finish line, arms joined. It was a finish line like no other before or since. I will never forget it and I will never forget Darcy’s unwavering support during difficult times. I have felt joy at every marathon finish line, but this finish line held a deeper joy and greater gratitude.