by Jean Maday, as-told-to Britt Julious
I had been a runner for 15 or 16 years before my ovarian cancer diagnosis. And by runner, I use that word loosely. I like to jog. I’m slow. I’m not anywhere near an eight or nine-minute mile like I was at one point, but I enjoy the camaraderie of doing a 5K with my friends.
Five years ago, I spent a year running races for Sandy Hook Elementary School. My family lives there. And so the shooting affected our family because my niece was the same age as those children, and another nephew was in school there. It was a very close thing. I took it upon myself the next year to just run a race for every victim. I also ran the New York City Marathon and raised about $5,000 for charity.
Running has always been something I’ve done. I’ve always set a goal, and after my diagnosis, all of that stopped. I had a physical operation, and I couldn’t do anything. Walking four blocks was hard. I thought, am I ever going to be able to do a triathlon again? Am I ever going to be able to do a 5K? I would say for the first eight or nine months, it was very challenging, because I felt disconnected from my life.
But so much of my support system and so many of my friendships came from my running group. I should say my running-support teams. There’s this group I call Fellow Flowers. It’s a movement that started with these ladies in Wisconsin. We wear flowers in our hair, and every flower has a color, and every color has a meaning. It’s how I’ve connected to a running community here in Chicago. Those women have been such a part of this process, even when I couldn’t run.
If cancer has taught me anything, it’s that I cannot do it all myself and that I do not have to be strong all the time. That strength lies in asking for help. Strength lies in admitting, being vulnerable, and sharing your weakest moments. It is the opposite of weakness, right? There’s a balance there, and it’s those connections. Everyone’s like, “Oh, you’re so strong. You’re managing this.” And I’m like, I’m not that strong. I’m strong because I have great people around me, and because I’ve given myself that break. I remember the day I walked half a mile, and it was everything to do that.
I had a second surgery in March of 2017, and two weeks later, I walked my first 5K in more than a year. It was a pretty fantastic thing. It took me an hour, and I was really, really slow. I did it with my friend at my side who said, “We will go as slow as you need, and if you need to stop, we’ll stop. If you can’t finish, it’s okay.” She’s said, “You’re amazing just for even trying this.”
During that first 5K, I just wanted to feel like I accomplished something. I felt like me again in a new world of cancer where I often don’t feel like me. I was still recovering from two surgeries and chemotherapy. I didn’t have any hair. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I had lost 40 pounds. I’m on this journey that changes every day. When I look in the mirror, I see something different every single day. But to have a sense of this is who I am from my running has been amazing.
I have a picture of me taken at Montrose Harbor (in Chicago) on the big hill. I’m sitting in the background with my arms raised in a Rocky pose because it was such an accomplishment to be able to do the 5K. I then went on to do about 20 5Ks over the course of last year, and I did two super-sprint triathlons.
The gift is I’m just more keenly aware that life ends someday. There are only so many moments I have with people or experiences or opportunities. Cancer has changed my life and the way I approach things 95 percent of the time. My chemo nurses and my doctors have echoed this. Don’t change your plans because of cancer. Go on the trip. Buy the shoes. Eat the cake. What does it matter? What does it matter if I gained three pounds this week, or didn’t run, or spent a little more money than I should have on a new pair of glasses? Life is short in the big picture. I have the lens now to look at life differently. Right now is a present. The present is a present.
I’ve found the way I could take care of myself was more mental than physical. Be real with who you are right now: the good, the bad, and the ugly. No one expects you to be anything more than right where you are. Own where you are right now. I may not be the fastest runner, swimmer—any of that stuff. I’m not a fast biker, but just getting out there and doing it provides me with a sense of accomplishment. I am strong even when my body may not be the strongest.
I was home visiting my family, and I had gotten out my old letter jacket from high school, and I made this weird connection between my attraction to sports in my life. It’s something that’s always a part of me, and it’s brought friendships and support. No matter where you are in this journey of cancer and life, of training for any sport or doing your first 5K, or even if you don’t see yourself as an athlete, we all have that ability in us. We all have that strength. I’ve changed, but I came back to something that represents who I was before cancer. This is me.
Jean Maday is the Director of Commercial Real Estate Development & Services for the National Association of Realtors.