Written By Robin Warshaw, Contributing Writer
Leisha Atwood enjoyed the physical and emotional boost she got from running. For three years, she built her strength and distance abilities while busy with two jobs, working full-time as a nutritionist/health coach and part-time in retail sales.
By age 28, the West Fork, Arkansas, woman had run in a half-marathon and then a full marathon. “Running is one of the things that makes me happy,” she says.
Four months after her first marathon, Leisha was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. While she had earlier considered not running again in the same half-marathon, hearing she had cancer changed her mind. She didn’t want the disease to stop her or get the best of her.
“I said, ‘Screw it—I’m running it this year,’” she recalls.“That meant a lot to me to be able to do it.”
Her family and friends worried the physical effort would be too much, but Leisha’s doctor said it was fine. “I just wanted to prove to myself that I could accomplish this and, in turn, accomplish the rest of my treatment,” Leisha says.
Aiming For A Goal
In normal half-marathon training, Leisha would run a few miles three or four times a week, with a longer weekend run. After her breast cancer diagnosis, she was to have four chemotherapy treatments spaced three weeks apart. Leisha listened to her body and scaled back her training when she felt tired.
It took about four days after each treatment before she felt strong enough to lace up her running shoes and continue training. Sometimes Leisha had to stop running after just a quarter-mile. She alternated running short distances with walking longer ones.
Having a degree in nutrition, she used her knowledge of healthy foods to support her physical condition. “I didn’t put a lot of restrictions on myself, because I knew I had to eat. I focused on vegetables and fruit, and staying hydrated,” she says.
Between her second and third chemo treatments, Leisha ran in the half-marathon she had set her sights on. Her time was only 15 minutes slower than when she ran the same race before diagnosis.
Adjusting to Surgery
After chemo came mastectomy with reconstruction. Following that, she couldn’t run for about eight weeks. “I really had to work to build myself up [for running] from there,” she says. As before, she alternated running short distances with walking, then gradually increased the running.
Reconstruction changed her from being what she describes as “very flat-chested” to fuller figured. “I had to adjust to having more on my chest than I did before,” Leisha says. “A lot of my sports bras didn’t fit.”
Although running “felt a little bit different,” she adapted quickly. The biggest problem, she says, was muscle fatigue due to chemotherapy.
Seven months after surgery, Leisha ran a duathlon, which combines running and cycling. She ran three miles, biked 18 miles, then ran another three miles. “Since then, I’ve done two or three half-marathons and three full marathons,” she says.
Dating and Post-Treatment Concerns
Leisha lives alone. She has three brothers and four sisters. After her diagnosis, several of her siblings started running and joined her in races. Family members have provided great support, as have friends and co-workers.
She looked for a breast cancer support group for young women in her area, but found none. It has been difficult, Leisha explains, to go through treatment and its side effects without talking to another woman her age in a similar situation. To learn more about young women and breast cancer, she used online resources.
Leisha wasn’t dating much at the time of her diagnosis and didn’t try to date while going through treatment. “You don’t feel good about your body.You don’t want to bring somebody into that,” she says.
When treatment ended, she started dating again. She says “it feels weird” not knowing when to bring up the subject of her breast cancer experience.“When you’re dating someone, it’s kind of a big thing,” she says.
She once told a guy she was dating about her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment and he quit talking to her. Another date knew her history beforehand. “That was a bit easier,” she says. They talked fairly comfortably about it.
On tamoxifen now for two years, Leisha has had fluid retention in her legs and feet. She feels “a little abnormal” from lower hormone levels caused by the medicine, as well as not getting her period and sometimes having hot flashes. “I feel a little older than I am,” she says.
Running helps. It has given her a sense of accomplishment and confidence as well as a sense of normalcy while going through treatment. “It’s part of my acceptance,” she says.
Listen to a podcast on the positive effects of exercise on health and well-being after breast cancer.
This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.