Runners are ruled by numbers. They drive our daily schedules, mark our successes, and create milestones. Every running career starts with one. For most, this number is a laughably slow mile time from a middle school track race that can be fondly looked back on years later. Mine is a little different.
A five -pound tumor.
When I entered summer 2008, right before my freshman year of high school, I was pretty skinny so halfway through the summer, I excitedly pointed out to my mom that my shorts were not buttoning. It felt like I was gaining some healthy weight, until one day I had a piercing pain in my abdomen.
I immediately knew something was wrong and asked to be taken to the local Cape Cod hospital near my house. After an X-ray and a blood test, the doctor came in and ordered my mom and I go up to Boston Children’s Hospital immediately. He said his hospital could not handle my case.
Several tear-filled hours later, the doctors in Boston confirmed by diagnosis. My gangly 14-year-old frame was hiding a 5-pound malignant ovarian teratoma.
Googling malignant teratomas is not for the faint of stomach. Essentially, it is common for young women to develop cysts when going through puberty. I happened to have had a cancerous cyst that was rapidly multiplying.
To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what happened next at Children’s Hospital: a couple tests, a lot of tears, and many doctors. I blocked it out. My grandmother passed away from ovarian cancer eight years before, so my mom had a particularly hard time watching me hooked up to machines and undergoing similar procedures.
Many doctors, including the amazing Dr. Marc Laufer, and one long surgery later and with one less ovary, the five-pound tumor was removed. I returned home with a nine inch scar running down my abdomen and a photo of the 5-pound monster who we nicknamed ALBY for alien baby.
The surgery was difficult, but recovery may have been even harder. I watched almost every minute of the Beijing Olympic while my stitches healed. I was weak and unable to carry more than ten pounds going into my freshman year of high school in New Jersey, which made lugging textbooks around impossible. Even when I finally was cleared to play soccer on the freshmen team, the coach didn’t trust my progress and benched me. I became depressed and stayed home watching YouTube videos alone on the weekends.
And every time I felt I was getting stronger, I had a cancer follow.
For those who don’t know, if you have malignant cells, you follow cancer protocol for five years even if you did not need to receive chemotherapy. We would drive into New York City to Memorial Sloane Kettering every three months. The MRIs and ultrasounds would dissolve me into a shell of a human again, weak and lonely.
Six months later, I hit a turning point when I decided to join the winter track team. All my friends who played other sports were on the track team and I finally felt like I had my personality and support group back. After a brief one-day stint in the hurdles group, I was put in the distance group by our knowledgeable coach, Mr. Szostak. By the end of my first season of track, I had run 5:11 in the 1600. And so began my love affair with the sport of running.
I like to describe my love of running like those cheesy love stories where the two heroes meet in kindergarten and don’t realize they are in love until many years later when everything clicks and they can’t imagine being with anyone else.
By summer 2009, I was back in Cape Cod and decided to use my newly-discovered passion to run the Falmouth Road Race and fundraise for Children’s Hospital Boston.
Three weeks later, during one of the routine cancer scans, I was hit with more devastating news. A smaller tumor was growing in my remaining ovary. I went up to Children’s Hospital Boston again and had Dr. Laufer remove the cyst, exactly like one year prior. This time, my chances to ever have a family of my own one day was on the line, but as a 15 year old I could only think about my thing; I didn’t want to disappoint my sponsors by not running the road race. Thankfully, Dr. Laufer performed the surgery and my recovery time was so quick, I was cleared to run the 7.1-mile road race just three weeks later.
It is now 2018 and I am writing this essay from a café in the summer running capital of Leuven, Belgium, as I look to chase a few more seconds off my Personal Best Times PBs. I have had so many opportunities in the past ten years of my life because of running, so, in a really weird and kind of messed up way, I am thankful for my tumor, ALBY. If not for that traumatic experience I would not have gone into running with as much passion. I would not have had the college recruitment opportunities that led me to attend and graduate from Dartmouth College in 2016 as an All-American in cross country and track. I would not have met some of my favorite people in the world. I truly believe that I have been forever changed by that summer in 2008 and I can’t imagine life any other way.
My dream in 2008 was to be NBC’s Olympics host Mary Carillo and tell human-interest underdog stories. I wanted to share what athletes had to do to get to the world’s biggest stage. Although I don’t talk about my surgeries that much, I carry a big chip on my shoulder. I am working to turn that chip into power. I don’t want to be the one telling other’s stories. I want to create a big enough story that makes others take notice. I used to be unable to talk about my surgery without breaking down. Now my dream is to live a life that follows the saying “be so good they can’t ignore you.” Now I bear my scar with pride, below a neon cropped kit.
This year I am running my hometown race, the Falmouth Road Race, to raise funds for Children’s Hospital Boston. I have an ambitious goal of raising $10,000 in honor of the ten years since my first surgery. I will continue to fundraise past the race to commemorate this 10th anniversary of wellness. I am beyond grateful for Children’s Hospital and would not be the person I am today without the world class care and support from the hospital. Please join me in helping other children get well and chase their dreams.
Thank you. With love,