Soon after I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ in February 2006, my best friend, a triathlete, asked me if I wanted to run the NYC Half-Marathon with her at the end of August. I was confused. Couldn't she see how hazy and frightening the concept of the future was for me? Or that I wondered why she'd still want to hang out with me in my damaged state? I didn't answer herâI couldnt.
But I let her drag me out of the house and I plodded behind her. It was better than obsessively googling breast cancer health sites and calculating my rate of recurrence. And I knew that running was good for me. But racing? I wasn't a racer.
"My mother is an athlete"
In fact, I didn't commit to the half marathon until the day my then 9-year-old son burst into the kitchen, fighting tears because one of his friends said I was like another friend's mother who'd died of breast cancer a few years before. "But I told him that isn't true," he said. "My mother is an athlete. She can run up all the hills in the neighborhood."
I realized I had no choice. I had to run the race. I had to be the mother who could run up all the hills in the neighborhood, to prove that I was still strong, that I would survive.
The month before the race, we were running nearly every day, up to 30 miles a week with long runs every Saturday. There were days I didn't want to runâdays I would have rather curled up in a chair and wept for my life before the diagnosis. But putting on my shoes and stepping one foot in front of the other forced me out of my ruminating head and planted me in my body. And as I ran, I felt stronger and lighter and freer. Slowly, I started to trust the body that had betrayed me. And on those days when the long runs felt like too much and I wanted to stop, I'd chant to myself: I am strong. I am healthy. I am healed.
The day of the race I stood shivering between my two friends (both seasoned marathoners) in a pool of runners, everyone seeming much more runnerâish than me. I thought: Who do I think I am, trying to run a race just six months after surgery? I wasn't ready.
And then we were movingâthrough Central Park and into Times Square, neon lights flashing, live bands blasting, and it felt effortless. In the wave of runners, we pulled each other along, moved as one, and I felt a connection to my fellow runners, to all runners, to anyone and everyone who had endured and kept going. I thought: I am a racer. I love running. I should do nothing but run all the timeâuntil mile 11, heading down the West Side Highway, when I wanted to stop. I tried my chant, but all I could think was, I can't do this. Can't take one more step. What was I thinking? How did I get myself into this? Haven't I been through enough this year? I'm not a half-marathoner. Not strong, not healed enough. Maybe I'm not the mother my son expects me to be.
Finding the strength
That's when my girlfriends hooked either side of my arms and started singing, "I Feel Good," and I couldn't help but sing with them, pushing through the resistance, the pain, the fear that I couldn't keep going, and we crossed the finish line holding hands.
Spectators high-fived me, and volunteers handed me water and apples and lime-green Gatorade. Someone hung a medal around my neck and I felt like an Olympic athlete. As I chomped into the most delicious apple I ever ate, I thought how grateful I was that my son needed me to be the mother who runs up all the hills in the neighborhood. It forced me to work my body harder than I thought possible, and to start to trust and believe in my will to survive.
Gail Konop Baker is the author of Cancer Is a Bitch: Or, I'd Rather Be Having a Midlife Crisis.