For most of my life, I have treated my body as a temple. I started running cross country in high school, and once I caught the runner’s bug, I never quit. It has been ten years since I graduated from Fairfield High School and I have conquered many race courses, from 5k races to ultra marathons. A few too many injuries taught me that if I wanted to keep pounding the pavement, I had to be very cognisant of how I treated my body. As I grew into my 20’s, I ticked off all the things my cross country coach preached to us: proper nutrition, getting enough sleep, keeping up on strength work, and listening to my body to be in tune with what it needed.
As I turned a young 27 years old, I was a picture of health. So, when I found a large lump in my left breast, I wrote it off as nothing to worry about. As the weeks went on and it didn’t disappear, I forced myself to schedule a doctor’s appointment for my own peace of mind. In the days that followed as I went to get a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy, I gave myself self-talks that I was a young and healthy distance runner. Cancer couldn’t catch me.
On February 12, 2019, I received my diagnosis of stage three breast cancer. I would spend a year undergoing chemotherapy and having a double mastectomy. I would lose my hair. I would stop running two weeks into chemo treatment. I would lose 30 pounds, most of which was muscle mass. My strong, defined runner’s legs withered away. My physical feats did not include crossing finish lines. Instead, I celebrated if I could walk down the grocery aisle without fainting. My identity shifted from being a young and healthy runner to being a young and sick cancer patient.
I don’t tell you this to scare you or to seek pity. I tell you this because breast cancer in young women is something we should all be talking about and aware of. I used to think of breast cancer as something that only affected older women. It was of concern for my mother, my grandmother. But 11% of breast cancer diagnoses occur in young women. I had no family history of breast cancer and no genetic mutation that made me predisposed to the disease.
Looking back, I now see there were some signs that something was wrong long before I found the lump in my breast. My energy had been very low for several months, and my training was also off. My training log was full of notes that said I felt like I had lost years of fitness overnight. Suddenly I couldn’t put in the volume of miles I was used to or run as well. I thought it was something I was going through mentally, or a bit of a plateau. I can’t turn back time and get myself to my doctor earlier. I can’t undo the fact that I was diagnosed at a later stage with breast cancer.
But I can use my story to advocate for you. I encourage you to explore your family health history. Start asking the questions about breast cancer and if it runs in your family. And trust your gut. You know your body best. Listen to what it’s telling you. If something is off, don’t ignore it. Learn how your body feels when it’s at its best, and learn when it’s not. And those health habits that your coaches harp on you about? It turns out they are actually important!
I know that breast cancer may not be the most topical or important thing right now. It feels like something to worry about much later in life. But there are young women just like me who are fighting their way through the disease. This is one of the reasons why Susan G. Komen Greater Iowa exists. Their focus on patient support, breast cancer advocacy, and research makes a world of difference for breast cancer patients of all ages. The MORE THAN PINK Walk put on by Komen directly supports these efforts. I hope you’ll join me in walking for all the breast cancer warriors of the past, present, and future.
-submitted by Rachel Peterson
The IGHSAU is committed to sharing the stories of high school female athletes, both past and present. We believe a strong narrative can empower and inspire other women to try more, go the distance, and persevere in the face of hardship. That's why we want you -- athlete, parent, friend, coach -- to share the story of an Iowa Girl that inspires you. What makes their story special? What have they overcome or accomplished? Is there something beyond the sport that makes their story especially unique? We want to know.
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