Running So Cancer Can't Catch Me

A year after Gina was diagnosed with cancer, her friend encouraged her to run a 5K. Even though it sounded extremely daunting, Gina made it her mission to run those 3.1 miles. Read more to find out how she found the strength to not only run that first 5K, but a 10K, 10 mile run, and even a half marathon.

I was 42, a high school Spanish teacher and the varsity girls' basketball coach. Life was good. My teams were enjoying the most successful seasons in school history. I just bought my first house. My hectic schedule, however, made taking time for myself and for exercise a rarity. That all changed with the words, "It's a cancer." It was invasive ductal breast cancer, and it changed my world forever - but not in the way I would have thought.

One year after I heard these words, a friend asked me to run a 5K. She assured me it would be laid back and fun. After all, it was sponsored by a Jimmy Buffet beer. But I had finished chemo less than 6 months ago and still struggled to garner enough energy to get through each day. So the thought of running 3.1 miles; heck, even walking 3.1 miles, was daunting.

Yet in my new normal, I knew this was what I needed. My tumor was an aggressive type called triple negative meaning there were no receptors on cells for treatments to grab and kill. Aggressive treatment was my best hope. After 8 grueling rounds of chemo, however, there were no future medicines to help me. No tamoxifen. No hormone therapy. When I finished treatment I thought I would bounce right back physically and emotionally, but I grew weaker and more emotional. I didn't feel like I was fighting the disease anymore. I missed the routine I had followed the last 4 months. Luckily I found great resources and realized these were common emotions for survivors. As my oncologist told me, diet, exercise and a less stressful lifestyle were my best allies. So I chose to take those weapons and fight as hard as possible.

Race day was cool and foggy along Chicago's lakefront. I had not trained; but the environment invigorated me. Dressed in my pink tie-dye t-shirt with a dark pink breast cancer ribbon on the front, I felt the adrenaline flowing. I pushed my way through that first 5K by running, then walking, from light pole to light pole. My friend stayed by my side the entire time. Most importantly, I finished the race - and I wasn't last. I was hooked.

The freedom, the exhilaration, the pure joy I felt during that run created the best emotions I had felt in months. I invested in proper running gear and even began to enjoy running in the cold. What was once an activity I didn't care for blossomed into a way for me to leave my cancer behind. The parts of me that cancer tried to challenge or take away proudly resurfaced on future runs. My physical strength, my emotional strength, my determination returned bigger and better than ever. And the runs helped my stress melt away. I gave up coaching and cherished the extra time I had to take care of me; to have time to run after school or on a Saturday morning. Running empowered me and and allowed me to be in control of life; not my cancer diagnosis.

With each run I continue to cover more mileage into my new normal; and thankfully leave cancer further and further behind. Some days my body feels tired and is hesitant to go for a run. But when I get to the river trail near my house, I appreciate nature's beauty. I put one foot in front of the other and relish the invigorating feelings. The added joy comes when I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to run. I survived chemo treatments and 5 surgeries in 3 years. Memories of barely being able to walk across my family room have faded; yet are excellent reminders of how running has strengthened and transformed me. Running is a privilege, and some of the best medicine I give my body.

Since that first 5K I have crossed the finish line in a 10K, a 10-mile run and my first half marathon. I'm not fast, but I run and I finish – making it harder for cancer to catch me. Time to sign up for another race!