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Running With Cancer

Running With Cancer

Part-time certified fitness instructor Jennifer Sinkwitts was slated to run the Boston Marathon after an impressive qualifying time—then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to run anyway.

Two years ago, the text alert “Invasive Ductal Carcinoma – Confirmed” chimed on my iPhone after completing mile 2 of the Boston Marathon. A month later, I’d struggle to walk to the mailbox at the end of my driveway.

February 2019

I woke up at 3 a.m. with a charley horse. The cramp in my left calf was so tight that I could not point or flex my foot out of it. Today’s run was 15 miles, and I needed more sleep to do it well. The Boston Marathon was less than two months away.

I began meditating to encourage sleep. I reminded myself to be grateful for even the most insignificant things, like my toes.

Yet by 4 a.m., sleep had not come. I tried to release my tension. I told each body part goodnight, just like the little bunny told the objects in his room in “Goodnight Moon.” I still know the words by heart. It was my son’s favorite.

I told my big toe on my left foot goodnight first. Eventually, I told my left knee, and then my right. When I got to my left breast, I felt it for lumps. I performed breast self-exams frequently since learning a few years ago that I had extremely dense breasts— so dense that a mammogram and ultrasound could not prognose a calcification. A lumpectomy was performed to remove it. Luckily, it was benign, but the surgeon’s warning that “You’ll likely have more breast issues. Limit your wine intake” and the scar circling my left nipple were daily reminders to self-check.

When I got to my right breast, I examined it like the diagrams demonstrate in all the pamphlets I read. Pressing together two flat fingers, I made circular motions around the circumference of my small breast. My breasts were the first to shrink after my 5-pound weight loss from training. A benefit of this is feeling things you might not otherwise, and that night I felt something. It was an itty-bitty thing. 

Coincidentally, I had an annual pap appointment at the Women’s Health Center later that day. When I showed the doctor, she nodded and left the exam room. Ten minutes later, she returned and scheduled a mammogram on the following Tuesday. I told her it was probably just a calcification and that I was leaving for a business conference on Tuesday. 

When I checked out, I asked the scheduler to cancel my appointment and to rebook me on Friday, the day I’d return from the trip. Nothing was available for the next ten days.

I replayed the last hour in my head while I drove to work. For the doctor to request a same-day mammogram bothered me. But I’d been down this road before.

I didn’t have the patience to wait ten days for a mammogram. So, I pulled over on the highway shoulder and called a different scheduler.

I asked to be seen sooner. The scheduler said nothing was available. I told her about my busy work schedule, which required out-of-state travel each week for the next month. She repeated that there were no openings. I asked her to look at affiliated hospitals within a 60-mile radius. She said she would call a few places and that she would call me back. I said I’d wait. She agreed. When she returned, she said it was taking longer than expected. I told her I’d drive whatever the distance and wasn’t going to hang up. I sat on the side of the road until I got an appointment on Friday, 40 miles away. I thanked her for her kindness.

My itty-bitty thing looked more than suspicious during Friday’s mammogram so an ultrasound was ordered. I was escorted to a different waiting room where the home improvement show “This Old House” played on a television mounted high on the wall. A woman silently cried in the corner.  

When my name was called, I followed the tech through a dimly lit hallway that led to a dark exam room. My name blinked on the monitor. I laid down, nervously, with my right breast exposed. Cold gel was squirt onto my breast and a wand-like device moved across my skin in search of itty bitty. I craned my neck to look, but all I saw was red whooshing in and out of a “suspicious” area. “Is that blood?” I asked. The tech nodded without making eye contact. I cried. Blood doesn’t feed a calcification.   

April 2019

To my surprise, I wasn’t too dense for the needle biopsy and ended up having three after additional spots were found. The assisting nurse held my hand and said, “You seem like an amazing person. I am so sorry this is happening to you.” I pressed her and the radiologist that day; their facial expressions told me I had cancer. I told them I was flying to Boston in a few days to run. The radiologist suggested I do it next year. I explained that I couldn’t because you must qualify. The problem was that I now had three suspicious spots, which could be three different cancers or metastatic breast cancer. Would I have enough energy (after a marathon) to fight three cancers?

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I told them that Boston was on my bucket list, and if I was going to die, I had to run it. We agreed that if one cancer was detected, I’d run. Any more cancers, and I wouldn’t. The radiologist promised to expedite the results.

A few days later, I was diagnosed with one breast cancer. The type and stage were still unknown but would be available on Monday—the day of the race. Funny, at that moment, I was relieved. I got in the car, drove to Lululemon, and bought the best damn running clothes the store had to offer. 

On April 15, I crossed the finish line with a time of 3:37. The race wasn’t what I expected. For three hours, I thought about how to tell my children I had cancer and which words to use, if I could watch them grow up from heaven and what I’d look like bald. Running Boston was tumultuous. I had never felt so consumed by fear and sadness, but when I crossed that finish line, I felt strong.

The takeaways from my story:

1. Cancer does not discriminate; athletes get it too.

2. Early detection is the key to survival, self-check often.

3. Be determined to get tests done quickly; my tumor was only 9 millimeters, but 3 inches of breast tissue was affected.

Knowing that I did not quit got me through some pretty tough times. When I felt weak with nothing left to give after my double mastectomy, I remembered Boston. 

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