Emily’s cancer diagnosis led her to find running.
Not surprisingly, being diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer at age 35 turned my world upside down. What is surprising is that cancer led me to running. I have always been an active person, but that activity had never included running. In fact, I despised running, even a lap around the block. About a year after chemo finished, another survivor who was running half marathons inspired me. My mind said I could not do it. I’d never been a “good” runner, I had two small children, I had been through 4 surgeries, had mild lymphedema in my arm, and the list went on and on. But if another survivor could do it, could I? I started with “mindfulness” walks where I took in the beauty of the trees, the warm sun, the breeze, and my healthy body. I practiced thinking of my body as capable, as healthy, as strong. When your body has let you down by growing cancer at a young age with no family history, some effort is required to trust it again.
I dusted off my old iPod, downloaded Top 40 music, and set out to run/walk a mile. Each time out, I aimed to run more than I walked. I signed up for my first 5K. Doing that race with other survivors helped me to, again, conquer my fears. If they could do this hard thing, so could I. After a few 5Ks, I needed a goal; a tangible goal that would be a real “F-you” to my body. I almost felt as if I was telling my body, “I told you so!” I signed up for a half marathon. My mother stared at me with wide eyes when I told her because everyone knew how much I hated running!
The training was hard. Finding the time to dedicate to long runs when I’m usually focused on my kids all day, every day, was challenging. I had to force myself to carve out “me” time and know that I was doing this both for my mind and my body. Race day came and the conditions were terrible. Blustery constant winds, 40-degree weather, and hard driving rain. I wanted to cry. This was not the moment I had pictured in my head during my three months of training. My race time was not what I trained for, but (oh, my!) crossing that finish line felt amazing! The race was exactly three years after my bilateral mastectomy. I could not believe how different my life was three years later. I did this hard thing, this thing that I never would have attempted pre-cancer.
A few months later, my mom-friends and I formed a Ragnar team. Ragnar races are relays of 12 runners that occur over 36 hours. They require riding around in a van with 6 friends and each of you running three legs of the race for a collective total of 200+ miles…on no sleep. Again, pre-cancer Emily would have said that Ragnarians are “true” runners and I would be crazy to try something like that. My first leg was in the dark at 5:45AM, and started with two-miles uphill before leveling off a bit for an additional 4.5 miles. As I was trudging up that Maryland mountain in the dark, I felt strong. Not fast, but strong. I pulled out my cell phone to text my team. This is what I sent: “This is exhilarating!” Two more runs, quick naps, and lots of van time later, our team ran together across the finish line in Washington, DC. Another physical accomplishment done! Each new experience has helped me push cancer further and further into my rearview mirror.
Sometimes the fear of reoccurrence creeps in. The “what ifs.” When this happens, I take it as a sign that I need to really live my life because… “what if.” I encourage my body to overcome my mind. My brain is saying I’m scared. My body is saying it’s hard. I just do it anyway.
– Emily Budlong, Norfolk, Virginia