A Story of Survival and Hope
Sometime last year, I decided to train for a marathon. I had never trained for or run in an official 26.2-mile race, although I’ve done a few races that were longer. But marathon running is very different from ultra-running. During ultras, you’re allowed to stop at aid stations, eat food, and hydrate to your heart’s content. You can walk if you want, chat with fellow runners, and even have friends tag along for some of the miles if you’d like. Ultras are usually friendly and relaxed, and that’s why I love running in them so much.
Marathoning, on the other hand, is hard-core. You run continuously for several hours and barely stop to take a drink. Quite frankly, I never thought I’d be up for the challenge. That’s why when I decided to run one, I knew I had to get serious about my training.
I’m Training for a Marathon!
I chose The Marathon of the Treasure Coast since I had heard it was a beautiful course and it was just up the street, so to speak. The race was scheduled for Sunday, March 7th, so I had a little more than 12 weeks to prepare. I selected Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Marathon Training Plan, Level 2, and started planning out my training.
So as 2020 came to a close, I was looking forward to 2021. I was training for a marathon, and life was good.
We Interrupt This Blog Post About Running for a Dose of Reality
As it turns out, I had an Ob-Gyn appointment in early January, for my annual check-up. I was supposed to go in December but something came up and I had to cancel it (It may have been a long training run!). As usual, the doctor’s office hounded me until I booked the make-up appointment.
“Doctors…”, I thought. “Always trying to keep their calendars full, squeezing patients in when then can…never giving you a break!” Little did I know that this time, their persistence may have saved my life.
The appointment itself was uneventful, and it included my yearly mammogram. (For my male readers, I promise, I will try to keep the details of my appointment that aren’t relevant to the story as minimal as possible.) But you see, yearly mammos are a requirement for women, like me, who chose hormone replacement therapy to help them get through the dreaded “M” word.
A few days after the appointment, as usual, I received and read the email with the results of my, er, scan. Instead of the usual “We’re pleased to tell you your results are normal” message that I usually get, this time it said, “please make an appointment for follow-up tests.”
A few days after the additional tests, my doctor called me on my cell. I was in a meeting at the time so she left a voicemail. The voicemail said “Hi Jeanette, this is Dr. Van Gilder. Please give me a call in the office when you can.”
This is the first time Dr. VanGilder has ever called me personally. “Well, I guess I know what she’s going to say.”, I thought. “She wouldn’t take the time to call me if she were going to deliver good news.”
The office was closed by the time I got her message so I called back the next morning. Yes, my suspicions were correct…she wanted me to make an appointment for a biopsy of the “spot” they identified on the scan because they still weren’t 100% sure what it was. She told me I could have Ob-Gyn Specialists do the biopsy at the office, or I could go to a breast specialist and have it done. I thought about it for a few moments and then said, “I’ll make the appointment with the specialist.” I figured if it turns out to be the C-word then I’d rather already be established with the specialist to expedite whatever would have to happen next.
Now, Back to Running…
It’s Valentine’s Day and I’m doing a long training run with two of my “besties”. The run was fabulous, but it was a hot and humid day. None of us were feeling great but we got through the 26 miles incident-free. (Well, one of us did trip on the pavement and got two nasty knee bruises but I won’t mention any names!)
The next day, Monday, I went in for the biopsy. I met my new doctor, Dr. Rehl, whom I felt comfortable with immediately. She carefully explained all of my test results up to that point and told me that if she could get a good view of “the thing” that they had identified with her ultrasound machine, she would be able to do the biopsy right there in her office. I braced myself, undressed, and followed her to the ultrasound room.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about the biopsy itself, but I’d like to put you at ease if you ever have to go through something like this yourself. But one thing I do have to say is that the biopsy itself was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever undergone. It’s really not a big deal. But it was strange.
First, the doctor used the ultrasound to identify “it”. (I don’t want to call it a tumor!) Then she told me she was going to inject some lidocaine and that it was going to sting, but only for a few seconds. Well, she couldn’t have been more wrong…it didn’t hurt a bit!
After I was all numbed up, she started the procedure. I admired her steady hand and self-confidence. What an amazing woman to be able to do something like this! I have no idea what she was doing because all I could do was close my eyes and hope it would be over soon. But it wasn’t. It kept going and going and going. And the noises I heard were so weird. I kept hearing this loud clicking noise–I have no idea what it was. I was imagining she was squeezing the handle of a caulking gun because that’s what it sounded like. At some point, she said, “Oh don’t worry about that clicking sound. It’s nothing.”
After what seemed like 10 minutes of clicking, clicking, clicking, she finally said, “Now I’m going to insert the needle and take a little sample.” Oh, now she’s going to take the sample? What had she been doing for the first ten minutes? I had no idea!
After she took the sample she said, “Now I’m going to insert a little clip so that we’ll be able to see the exact spot with future scans.” And then the clicking started again, and there seemed to be some pulling.
Since I was numb, I didn’t feel any pain during the entire procedure but it was still a very strange experience. When we were all done I was sore and a large bruise was starting to form where she had inserted the needle. She told me she would get the results by Wednesday. “Honestly,” she said, “Usually I can tell when I do the biopsy if it’s cancer but in your case, I really can’t. It didn’t feel like cancer when I inserted the needle into it, but it kind of looked rough around the edges. So we’ll just have to wait for the results.” She empathetically gave me an ice pack, told me not to worry too much, and sent me on my way.
The Waiting Game
Wednesday comes and goes without a phone call from the doctor. Thursday came and I finally got a call late in the day while I was in a meeting. “Crap.”, I thought, “I can’t get to the phone because of this meeting but I want to know what they have to say.” But I would have to wait.
When the meeting was over I called the office but they had gone for the day. “Double crap!” I would have to wait some more.
On Friday morning I called the office and had to leave a message for the doctor. The receptionist said she would tell her I called and she would call me back later in the day.
I drove over to my parents’ for a lunch-time visit. As soon as I arrived at their house, one of the friends I ran with on Sunday messaged me to tell me that since she still wasn’t feeling well, she decided to get tested for COVID.
Well, guess what.
She tested positive! Between you and me, as terrible as I felt for her, I felt even worse for me. I had to leave my parents’ house immediately, and find a walk-in clinic that could give me a rapid COVID test. Thoughts were racing through my mind. “Do I have COVID? Do I have cancer? Do I have neither? Both?” Gee whiz, it couldn’t get more stressful than this!
I found a walk-in clinic on Donald Ross Road and went in. The swab for COVID was almost as uncomfortable as the biopsy I had recently endured. I waited in the small exam room for my results. Miracle of miracles, I didn’t have COVID. Hallelujah, one battle won.
The Moment of Truth
I walked out of the clinic and the phone rang. It was Dr. Rehl. I answered it as quickly as I could. I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the clinic inwardly rejoicing that I didn’t have COVID but panicked at what I was going to hear in the next few seconds. “I hate giving patients news like this especially on a Friday afternoon, but your biopsy was positive. I’m afraid you have breast cancer.” Well, I guess my lucky streak came to an end right there on the sidewalk in front of that clinic in 85-degree heat, I might add. I was sweating and I was tired but I wanted to hear more.
Before I could ask for more info she kept going. “It’s a teeny tiny tumor and I’m confident I can get it all out and I doubt that you’ll need chemo. It will be a simple procedure and you’ll probably have some radiation and you’ll have a great prognosis moving forward.” She desperately wanted to reassure me that it would be ok seeing as I would have to go through the weekend with the news before I could do anything about it.
“Well, OK”, I thought to myself. “I can handle this. I’m strong, healthy, and I can overcome it if I do everything the doctor says.”
I thanked her for letting me know and I told her that I was going to stay positive and that I would do whatever she needed me to do to beat it long-term.
What About My Marathon?
Surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, March 9th. When the nurse called me to schedule it the only question I had for her was whether or not I would be able to run my marathon on Sunday the 7th. She said I could.
Life is good.
I was now tapering for the race. Had I trained hard enough? Would I be able to finish without “hitting the wall?” Would I have a good finish time or would all of my training have been for nothing?
These are the things I was thinking in the days leading up to my race, not the fact that I would be having a partial mastectomy two days later.
Sunday | Funday | Raceday
Sunday came and I felt ready. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning to prep. I then drove a few miles to meet my friend Shelley at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Tequesta at 5:45 for a 6:30 start time.
Somehow as we were driving up, I started to feel unprepared. “26 miles–was I crazy? That’s a long way to run non-stop with no food!” I thought. And there will be bridges. Big ones. Bridges high enough for sailboats to sail under. Not to mention the 20+ MPH wind we were going to have to run against. And the roads wouldn’t be closed. “How can you run a marathon on busy streets with cars racing up and down the roads?” I wanted to know. Well, I was about to find out.
The purpose of this blog post isn’t to write a race report on the marathon I ran on that Sunday. Suffice it to say that I ran the best race that I could, despite all of the obstacles I faced. When the race was over, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had won first place in my age group. Nice! I had earned a spot on the podium in my first marathon!
Two days later, I was running a different sort of race. Although I wasn’t running. I was waiting. It was the day of my surgery. I was told to report to the outpatient surgery center at Good Sams by 11:30. My son drove me there and waited with me for a few hours when we found out that the surgery would be delayed another two hours at least. I told him to go home and come back later with Kevin, my husband when the surgery was almost done so that’s what he did.
Around 5 PM Dr. Rehl finally came in to get me ready for surgery. She and a few other doctors and nurses came in for the final “interview”. They asked me if I knew what procedures were going to be done and I said “Yes” and said “a partial mastectomy/lumpectomy to remove a small tumor.” And they said, “Yes, and a lymphadenectomy.” “Oh yeah”, I said. “And a lymphadenectomy, to see if there’s any cancer in the lymph nodes.”
“Right”, they all said, almost in unison.
So on Tuesday, March 9th, I had surgery to remove a small tumor and three lymph nodes. I had two incisions, swelling, and some bruising, but otherwise, I came out of it in pretty good condition.
No Running – Doctor’s Orders
Dr. Rehl told me that I couldn’t run for two weeks. “Really?”, I thought to myself. “Two weeks? That’s a long time. I’m not sure if I can do it.” but I assured her that I could. I had to take care of myself since I had been through a physical ordeal, and just like after a hard running effort, rest and recovery would be key components of my overall success.
To the Other Podium
It was around this time when I realized I had signed up for a 5K on March 27th. Well, the 5K had originally been scheduled in early February, but it had been postponed due to COVID. “Would I be able to run a 5K less than three weeks after surgery?” I thought to myself. I was about to find out.
5Ks are hard, especially if you run them as if you might be able to get on the podium. But that’s exactly what I did. I knew I wouldn’t be able to run my fastest 5K but I was darn sure going to give it my all. I hadn’t run but maybe two times since the surgery so I wasn’t exactly sure how to pace myself. I decided that if I could run each mile in just about 8:45, I might have a chance.
Mile 1: 8:45…right on target.
Mile 2 was a little harder but I kept up the pace and finished it in 8:50…not too shabby.
Mile 3: is when you find out if you started too fast. This time, I hadn’t, as I was able to keep up the pace and finish in 27:09. This was good enough to earn me third place in my age group.
I had made the podium again, two and a half weeks post-surgery!
My Story of Survival and Hope
So that’s my “From the Podium to the OR to the Podium, in Less than Three Weeks” story. If you recently found out you’re also battling breast cancer, feel free to reach out to me. We can get through this together!
Running is many things to me. It’s my therapist, my mother, my church. It’s always there for me, especially when I need it most. It helps bring sanity to a sometimes chaotic world. It’s my Zen. And I hope it’s yours too.
This blog post was a little out of the norm for me, so I appreciate you reading it all the way through.
Keep running to the beat!
breast cancer surviver