Fighting cancer requires patients to summon physical and emotional strength that many never knew they had. Spurred on by this full-body battle, some survivors leverage their toughness and fighting spirit to conquer another tremendous physical feat: running 26.2 miles in a marathon.
“On the psychological side, we’ve seen a number of times that people who have conquered cancer are really interested in showing that they are back to normal,” Dr. Marcel van den Brink, chief of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Hematologic Oncology Division, tells The Post. “They show it by doing something like running a marathon or going on a major hike.”
Still, van den Brink advises that would-be marathoners first check with their doctors, adding, “Don’t overdo it. Don’t focus on a set time. Just enjoy the experience.”
Meet three cancer survivors who are taking back their lives by running the New York City Marathon on Sunday.
She has emotional and physical scars, but Carrie Kreiswirth, 41, is determined to cross the finish line — a feat she says she’d never have considered if she hadn’t first battled cancer.
“This was never a bucket-list item,” Kreiswirth, who works in p.r., tells The Post. “For me, this is a celebration and commemoration of what my body has been through and what it’s capable of doing. I’m choosing to do this.”
Five years ago, Kreiswirth was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. A carrier of the BRCA1 gene — a genetic mutation that predisposes people to breast and ovarian cancer — she opted to have a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery using tissue from her abdomen and hips. She also had her ovaries removed and her eggs retrieved before undergoing chemotherapy.
“I have a 20-inch scar on my stomach. And there’s scar tissue in my hips from the reconstructive surgery,” says the Upper East Side resident, who says the stiff scar tissue reduces her flexibility and makes it difficult to clock high mileage.
Before her diagnosis, Kreiswirth casually jogged. In February 2014 — only six months after finishing chemotherapy — she ran a half-marathon at Disney World. “It was too soon,” she says. Although the race made her feel “remarkably accomplished,” she says she was still struggling psychologically with “the aftermath of cancer.”
‘This is a celebration and commemoration of what my body has been through and what it’s capable of doing.’
Then, in 2017, she received an e-mail from First Descents — an outdoor-adventure company that provides physical challenges to cancer patients — about running the marathon to raise money for the charity.
“For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to delete the e-mail,” she says. Instead, she signed up. “There was this idea of ‘Let’s do this and take back some control.’ ”
Kreiswirth consulted with a sports medicine doctor at Manhattan’s Hospital for Special Surgery, who gave her the thumbs up. She now sees a physical therapist every week to work on her scar tissue flexibility. And running coach Jonathan Cane helps keep her on track.
The journey, she says, has allowed her “to take control of my body again both physically and emotionally.” She’s not only hoping to finish the race, but for it to be “the best day of my life.”
When Pila Cadena crosses the finish line on Sunday, she’ll have completed her 202nd marathon and her fourth in New York City. Impressive enough for anyone, but the 61-year-old Florida resident has beat cancer — three kinds, three times.
“Running has been the only thing that’s been a constant in my life,” Cadena tells The Post. The self-described tomboy started running long distances at 21. It was around this time that she was diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing surgery to remove the small tumor. A few years later, she noticed a lump in her throat and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which required her to have another surgery and radiation treatment. Then, in 2005, the mother of two underwent a hysterectomy after she was diagnosed with uterine cancer — followed by radiation treatments.
And yet this series of harrowing health ordeals merely slowed, but never stopped, her voracious appetite for running. She continued to put in miles, she says, “even if I was just walking, jogging or shuffling. That’s where I found my strength.”
The power of movement also motivated the former bookkeeper to become a running coach — and she spreads the gospel of jogging to everyone from high schoolers to senior citizens.
She is running the marathon as part of New York Road Runners’ Team #MovedMe, a group of 26 participants (one for every mile) selected by race organizers who are especially inspiring.
Cadena — who gets tested every six months but has been cancer-free for more than a decade — definitely fits that bill.
“In my mind, [doing a marathon] wasn’t about running. It was about me moving forward,” she says. “I figured the moment you stop, you die. I’m not ready for that.”
Garrett Cornelison was dealt a blow in September 2017 when his doctor informed him that a lingering lump in his tonsils — initially thought to be a run-of-the-mill viral or bacterial infection — was actually cancer. Hearing the C-word, the 39-year-old Houston-based lawyer tells The Post, “makes you go weak in the knees.”
He had a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and while the tumor could be surgically removed, his doctor advised him to undergo six months of chemotherapy to reduce the risk of recurrence.
Cornelison — an avid cyclist, regular gym-goer and casual runner at the time — was encouraged by his doctor to stay as active as possible during the treatments, which he began in October 2017.
Soon, though, his body was overwhelmed.
“A couple weeks in, I lost my hair and then I could only run a half a mile and I’d be winded,” he says.
At one point, he was admitted into the hospital for a frighteningly high fever because his immune system was so run down.
Despite all this, he managed to stay active — and when he couldn’t run 5 miles, he’d walk.
He officially completed chemo in March and is now cancer-free. But it wasn’t until June that he started to feel more like his old self. That’s when he decided to join the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training to raise money for cancer research and run the New York City Marathon — his first shot at a 26.2 mile race.
His battle with cancer, he says, gave him “the will to accomplish this.” Still, he doesn’t consider himself a natural runner and he suffers from nerve damage as a result of his treatment. He goes to physical therapy weekly, where he has acupuncture done on his hamstring.
“Having a marathon as a symbol of what I hope would be a lasting recovery has been very meaningful and important,” says Cornelison, whose oncologist gave him the green light. “The fact that I’m going to do this eight months after completing treatment is incredible.”
As a bonus, his wife Katie Cornelison will be running the race as well.
“She’s much faster than I am, so she’ll beat me,” he says. “But I love New York. I’m not in a hurry to get off the streets.”