Fight for the Fight

Andrea Goto paces off a cancer survivor and community leader.  Photography by Christine Hall.

At daybreak on November 9, 2013, more than 3,000 runners stood shoulder to shoulder on Bay Street at the starting line of the Savannah Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon.

The crowd hummed with anxious banter and bounced with nervous bladders, awaiting the gun.  To prepare, some had lubed their inner thighs, placed Band-Aids on their nipples and slurped snot-like substances for pre-race energy.  They chatted about splits, training programs and compression sleeves.  Some stood with one arm raised to the sky waiting for a signal—from either the gods or their GPS watch, which is sometimes one and the same—to tell them they were ready for what lie ahead.

Some ran with physical pain, others ran burdened by emotion.

Julie Wade ran with cancer.

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Julie, a lawyer, wife and mother of three young children, had been an intermittent runner most of her life, but it wasn’t until she was on the cusp of 40 that she began to feel like a runner.  She’d been following a strict training program for the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon and it was hard to ignore her svelte runner’s body.  As the marathon neared, she realized that a successful race could possibly qualify her for the runner’s equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca: the Boston Marathon.

“I was on top of the world,” Julie says, as if 2013 were a lifetime ago. “I had a successful law practice, a wonderful family, I was as fit as I’d ever been and I was running fast.”

So This is 40?

From her vantage point, Julie was en route to becoming what she calls “40 and fabulous”—a milestone that also meant the advent of routine annual mammograms.  Six days after a blowout birthday celebration, Julie had her breasts imaged.  Two weeks after turning 40, she received a somber call from her husband, Drew, a radiologist at SouthCoast Imagining Center, where Julie got her mammogram.

“He said there was a 30 to 40 percent chance it was cancer,” Julie explains. “But, knowing Drew, that meant it was more like 50 to 60 percent.”

The cancer, undetectable by self-examination, was found in the milk ducts of one breast. Because it was detected early, Julie remained optimistic until further tests revealed that the cancer was also in her lymph nodes.  She then faced a unilateral mastectomy, chemo and radiation.

“That was the lowest point,” Julie recalls. “I liked my breast.  I liked my hair.  I didn’t want to lose these things.”

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For someone who’s never been there, Julie’s may seem like an unexpected response when facing a life-threatening disease, but her perspective reflects the spirit in which she faced her battle.  She didn’t consider forfeiting anything other than her breast to cancer.  The loss of her platinum blond hair, runner’s physique and 8:30 training pace was only temporary.  Run, walk or crawl—Julie knew she simply had to make it across the finish line.

Julie’s oncologist, Dr. Mark Taylor at Summit Cancer Care, acknowledges his patient’s extraordinary spirit.

“She’s always very positive,” Taylor notes.  “She was rattled at first, but after that she treated (cancer) like it was some sort of adversary in the courtroom.  Like ‘this is the enemy and I’m stronger than it.’”

Julie postponed her surgery until after the marathon she had always intended to run.  She tore up the strenuous 26.2-mile course muttering, “Breast cancer can kiss my ass,” the entire way.  She finished far ahead of the mid-pack runners with an astonishing time of 3:39:59, qualifying her to run the Boston Marathon in 2015.  After the race, Julie posted a picture on Facebook of herself and Drew—an accomplished runner—holding a sign that read, “Boston or Bust.”

Survival Skills

At the time, only a handful of people knew Julie had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but that would all change in the coming months when she announced that she would continue to race through her treatment, and run the 2-mile stretch to and from every chemotherapy appointment.

“Everyone handles it differently,” Julie explains.  “I told my family from the start that I was going to be selfish about my treatment and do what I needed to do to get through this.  Running was a way to feel normal.”

Her doctor describes his reaction as “somewhere between amazement and thinking she’s crazy.”

“She’s an avid runner and was in great shape to do it,” Taylor explains. “We want people to stay active, to maintain muscle mass with some level of activity.  Julie just took that to the extreme.”

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Julie worked closely with her doctor to address her unique—and potentially dangerous—situation as a runner with cancer, which included dialing back her effort and staying hydrated.

To “hold herself accountable,” Julie launched “Running Thru Chemo,” a Facebook page dedicated to her journey.  She thought maybe a couple hundred friends would “Like” her page.  To date, it has more than 1,000 followers and extends around the world.

“It’s self-congratulatory,” she insists, laughing.  “It is, isn’t it?”

Julie’s friends don’t agree.  Comments on the page include heartfelt thanks, praise, encouragement and the oft-repeated refrain, “Suck it, cancer.”  It has recorded her monthly treatments, slowing pace (which is relative, considering a 9:30 mile is a personal record for many runners) and changing body, including her inevitable hair loss.  But more than that, the page celebrates Julie’s unshakable spirit with images of her racing a half marathon at the midpoint of her treatment, playfully trying on wigs, and cuddled up with her children in a recliner at Lewis Cancer Center—smiling in every picture.  One of the most touching snapshots shows Julie ceremoniously ringing the bell reserved for patients who have completed their final round of chemo, which she did on April 30.

The Bell Lap

A mere week after ringing the bell and still reeling from a chemo “hangover,” Julie sits outside a café sipping hot tea.  She does not look sick.  Only the downy blond hairs peeking out from her colorful headscarf hint at her journey.  She’s relaxed.  Her blue eyes are bright and sharp and the sun flushes her dewy skin, making it look as if she’s just come from the spa.  She shrugs off the upcoming daily radiation treatments “no big deal,” and instead focuses her sights on Boston.

As far as what will be different this time around, Julie acknowledges she’ll be slower at first, but undeniably stronger.

The solo runner also adds, “I’d like to be a more social runner.” With more than 1,000 people following her every step, it’s safe to say she’s already there.

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