by Corea Bergenser Smith
At age 38, I was diagnosed with breast cancer after returning from Operation Enduring Freedom. I did everything I was supposed to do — I ate well, exercised and breast-fed my kids — why did I have breast cancer? When my genetic test came back positive for BRCA2, it was a shock, since our large family had no history of breast cancer. Dad and my younger sister Julie also tested positive for a BRCA2 mutation.
Julie and I are two years apart and very close, even though we live on separate coasts. She and her husband were working on starting a family, but she developed cervical cancer and had a radical hysterectomy, so I was planning to be their surrogate. Breast cancer put a halt to that plan, as I had to focus on getting well, and Jules had to focus on staying well. After my double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, numerous reconstructions, and hysterectomy/oophorectomy, I now take an aromatase inhibitor — I want to be sure that cancer does not stand a chance. Within months, Julie had a prophylactic double mastectomy and reconstruction. She's planning an oophorectomy when she and Jay complete their family (they are expecting a baby boy in January.)
Julie and I have always been runners. In high school, no one wanted to spend the night at our house once they learned that Dad woke up everyone for morning weekend runs, guests included (we had shoes and clothes to fit all). Running has always been a great way for us to stay healthy and sane. On the morning of my mastectomy in 2011, I went for a 4:00 a.m. run in the cold rain because I knew that it would be my last great run for awhile. During chemotherapy, I was out running (more like shuffling) to get that runner's high. We even celebrated my last chemotherapy by entering a half marathon as my comeback run.
We were looking for another run to celebrate life when we saw that FORCE was sponsoring a Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) team. We joined immediately, but training has not been easy. Treatment has taken a toll on my body: I am slower, 20 pounds heavier, and I feel 20 years older than before my diagnosis. But I am thankful to be running and training for a cause with friends. My fellow FORCE MCM teammates are my inspiration. On mornings when my treatment-induced arthritis makes me stiff and sore, I am thankful just knowing that my teammates around the country are out there training too, supporting FORCE and giving back. FORCE was such a help to Julie and me when we faced so many unknowns, and we are doing our part in raising awareness about the HBOC community. This past weekend, I ran the first of my two really long runs: 18 miles! That would not have been big deal three years ago, but this year it's huge, and I feel great. This marathon may take me two hours longer to cross the finish line than before I was diagnosed with cancer, but I feel empowered and strong!