Joyce Chu runs the New York City Marathon / Photo provided by Joyce Chu
When Sunni Ingalls, 44, was diagnosed with breast cancer last November one of the first questions the Webster mom asked her doctor was: “How long do I have to wait before I can run?”
Ingalls, like the other extraordinary women you will meet in this article, ran through her treatment for a chronic disease.
Their diseases and reasons for running vary, but their indomitable spirits are shared and enough to motivate anyone on the fence about putting on running shoes to give it a try.
When Ingalls started running five years ago through a learn-to-run training program at Fleet Feet Sports, she never anticipated the impact it would have on her life.
“Looking back, I believe running was placed there for a reason,” Ingalls said. “When I got sick I felt so grateful running was there for me. I was so glad I had that foundation.”
Ingalls was diagnosed with grade two breast cancer on Nov. 17, 2011. A week later, she ran in the Webster Turkey Trot.
“I just kept going,” Ingalls said. “I had to get out there. While I was running I just thought how grateful I was that at least I had arms and legs.”
Working closely with her oncologist at Highland Hospital, who monitored her weight and health; Ingalls continued to run between two surgeries and radiation.
It was not easy.
“To run through radiation was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Ingalls said. “I was exhausted after a run. But I went through radiation much happier than I think I would have been if I wasn’t running.”
Ingalls continued to run (albeit shorter distances than before she was diagnosed) because she was told by her doctors women who exercised during treatment would feel better and get their energy back faster.
But, there was another reason.
“Running was my constant and foundation during a time with a lot of uncertainty,” Ingalls said. “I could depend on it.”
About a year after diagnosis, Ingalls is now cancer free…and still running. She notes a study published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association as a motivator for staying the course.
The study showed women who had breast cancer and exercised at least three to five hours a week cut their recurrence risk by up to 40 percent.
With her energy back to where it was before breast cancer, Ingalls recently accepted an invitation to mentor new runners through Fleet Feet’s No Boundaries program.
“Running is the best thing you can do for yourself,” Ingalls said.
Dr. Joyce Chu
Joyce Chu, a physician from Fairport, has run in six marathons – but what makes that feat even more remarkable is that two have been since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
Parkinson’s is a chronic, degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. There is no cure for the disease and 60,000 Americans will be diagnosed this year.
But, in the four years since she was diagnosed, Chu has found a non-traditional medication that helps with some of the physical and emotional aspects of the disease: running.
“Running is the ultimate high,” said Chu, who began running in her twenties and won the Ontario Shore Marathon in 2003. “I used to run for exercise and now it’s the mental relief. It’s relaxing and a great way to release stress.”
As a physician Chu knows first how running can help those with chronic illness.
“For any type of nuero-muscular disease exercise is beneficial,” Chu said. “If you do it in moderation and train carefully it is really good for you.”
Chu will be participating in the 2012 ING NYC Marathon on Nov. 4 as a member of Team Fox – a part of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research that is dedicated to finding a cure for the disease.
The Emmy Award-winning Fox was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease in 1991 and disclosed his condition to the world in 1998.
When Chu was diagnosed she also took some time before telling people – she came out publicly with her diagnosis by running the NYC Marathon in 2010 for Team Fox. Chu ran a “PW” (personal worst) of 4 hours, 5 minutes, but she had the opportunity to meet Fox and be filmed for a documentary with him, which gave her great hope and motivation.
She ran again in 2011 and will run/gallop/walk again this year with Matt Wilbur, a friend who has Parkinson’s Disease.
This will be Chu’s last marathon, as running has become laborious as her Parkinson’s has progressed because she must consciously think about lifting her right leg each time she steps or she will fall.
She expects to complete the marathon in about seven hours and is excited for the day to arrive.
There are days Staci Gowie, 42, of Greece admits she would love to stay in bed. But, the busy, working mother of three always wakes up and, often times, prepares for a day with a run built it.
“I always feel really good on the days I run,” Gowie said. “It is time for myself and something I’m doing for me.”
Gowie is new to running, but happily hooked. Her boss at the Rochester Eye and Laser Center, Dr. Kenneth Lindahl, recently challenged the office to become more healthy and Gowie decided to give running a try.
“When I started I could run to the mailbox and that was about it,” said Gowie, who is part of Fleet Feet Sport’s Couch to 5K program. “Now I have a five-year goal to run a half or full marathon for Stand Up to Cancer.”
Why Stand Up to Cancer?
Gowie has Metastatic Thyroid Cancer, a cancer that is uncommon in the United States, but whose rates have been rapidly growing the past several years. According the American Cancer Society, 43,210 women were diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2012 – twice what it was in 1990.
Gowie was diagnosed in 2009 – although she first started having issues with her thyroid in 2004. She has been through one surgery and three rounds of radiation and is now radiation resistant.
“I was very angry,” Gowie said. “But running and training for this 5K has finally got me past the anger. I’m not going to let cancer control me; I’m taking the control back I lost the day I was diagnosed with cancer.”
One of the biggest factors in her learning to love to run has been the people around her.
“You hear the saying about schools ‘No child left behind,’” Gowie said. “That’s what it’s like with Fleet Feet’s program, there is ‘No runner left behind.’ It is such a motivating group.’”
When it comes to running without a thyroid, Gowie has to be careful not to overheat or get too cold because she no longer has the gland that regulates body temperature. But aside from that, she doesn’t see her cancer as that big of an impact on her running.
“Running is a process,” Gowie said. “I have good days and bad days, but eventually it will all even out.”
Since May, Erica Carlston, 36, of Holley has run in six 5Ks – an impressive feat for someone who just began running again last winter after a four-year hiatus.
“I try to do a race every month,” said Carlston, whose current running goal is the Utica Boilermaker 15K in July.
Carlston’s four-year break from running was due to complications from Bechet’s Disease (BEH-chets), a rare autoimmune disease she was diagnosed with in her twenties – along with asthma.
Bechet’s is a systemic disease that results from damage to blood vessels throughout the body, particularly veins. Onset is most common among women in their 20s – 30s.
Each patient with Bechet’s is affected differently and Carlston’s eyes and lungs have been impacted the most over the years. She also gets regular knee and hip pain and severe fatigue.
“Last year I was feeling really horrible and tired all the time,” Carlston said. “I thought ‘Why don’t I try to run again and see if it helps?’”
Carlston started The Couch-to-5K Running Plan, an online program that guided her from walking to running in twelve weeks.
Quickly, the mother of two saw a difference in her health.
“Even since I started running I don’t have to use my inhaler as much and don’t get bronchitis,” Carlston said. “I feel better and have a ton of energy.”
Carlston, whose weight had changed due to medications for Bechet’s, has lost 20 pounds in a year.
She listens to her body and does not run if her hips or knees are too achy.
Carlston has this advice for women with chronic health issues considering running:
“Start slowly and work your way up. Have a support system and running buddies. Even a little bit of running is more than you would be doing sitting on the couch and you’ll feel better.”