How Surviving a Rare Form of Cancer Made Me a Better Runner
Marissa Ierna beat a 30 percent survival rate—then found a whole new kind of strength.
On June 7, 2012, just hours before I was set to walk across the stage and receive my high school diploma, an orthopedic surgeon delivered the news: Not only did I have a rare cancerous tumor in my leg, and would need surgery to remove it, but I-an avid athlete who had just finished my most recent half marathon in two hours and 11 minutes-would never be able to run again.
The Fateful Bug Bite
About two and a half months earlier, I got a bug bite on my right lower leg. The area beneath it seemed swollen, but I just assumed it was a reaction to the bite. Weeks went by and on a routine 4-mile run, I realized the bump had grown even bigger. My high school athletic trainer sent me to a local orthopedic institute, where I had an MRI done to see what the tennis ball–size lump might be.
The next few days were a flurry of urgent phone calls and scary words like "oncologist," "tumor biopsy," and "bone density scan." On May 24, 2012, two weeks before graduation, I was officially diagnosed with stage 4 alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of soft tissue cancer that had wrapped itself around the bones and nerves of my right leg. And yes, stage 4 has the worst prognosis. I was given a 30 percent chance of living, regardless of whether I followed the suggested protocol of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
As luck would have it, though, my mother worked with a woman whose brother is an oncologist specializing in sarcoma (or soft tissue cancers) at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He happened to be in town for a wedding and agreed to meet to give us a second opinion. The next day, my family and I spent nearly four hours speaking with Dr. Chad Pecot at a local Starbucks-our table covered with a jumble of medical records, scans, black coffee, and lattes. After a lot of deliberation, he thought my chances of beating this tumor were the same even if I skipped surgery, adding that a one-two punch of intense chemo and radiation could work just as well. So we decided to take that route.
The Hardest Summer
That same month, as all my friends were kicking off their final summers at home before college, I started the first of 54 punishing weeks of chemotherapy.
Practically overnight, I went from a clean-eating athlete who routinely ran 12 miles every weekend and craved giant breakfasts to an exhausted patient who could go days with no appetite. Because my cancer was graded stage 4, my drugs were some of the harshest you can get. My doctors had prepared me to "be knocked off my feet" with nausea, vomiting, and weight loss. Miraculously, I never once threw up, and I only lost about 15 pounds, which is much better than expected. They, and I, chalked this up to the fact that I had been in great shape before the diagnosis. The strength I'd built up from sports and healthy eating served as a sort of protective shield against some of the most potent medications around. (Related: Staying Active Helped Me Overcome Pancreatic Cancer)
For a little more than a year, I spent up to five nights a week at a local children's hospital-poisonous medication constantly being injected into me in an effort to kill the cancer cells. My dad spent every night with me-and became my best friend in the process.
Throughout it all, I missed exercising terribly, but my body just couldn't do it. About six months into treatment, though, I tried running outside. My goal: A single mile. I was drained from the start, out of breath and unable to finish in less than 15 minutes. But even though it felt like it would nearly break me, it served as mental motivation. After spending so much time lying in bed, being injected with medications and summoning the courage to keep going, I finally felt like I was doing something for myself-and not just in an effort to beat cancer. It inspired me to continue looking forward and beating cancer in the long run. (Related: 11 Science-Backed Reasons Running Is Really Good for You)
Life After Cancer
In December 2017, I celebrated four and half years cancer free. I recently graduated from Florida State University with a marketing degree and have a wonderful job working with the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, which helps families with children battling cancer.
When I'm not working, I'm running. Yup, that's right. I'm back in the saddle and, I'm proud to say, faster than ever. I started back slowly, signing up for my first race, a 5K, about a year and three months after finishing chemo. Even though I avoided surgery, part of my treatment included six weeks of radiation aimed directly at my leg, which my oncologist and radiologist had both warned me would weaken the bone, leaving me prone to stress fractures. "Don't be alarmed if you can't get past 5 miles without it hurting too much," they said.
But by 2015, I had worked my way back up to longer distances, competing in a half marathon on Thanksgiving Day and beating my last pre-cancer half-marathon time by 18 minutes. That gave me the confidence to try training for a full marathon. And by May 2016, I had completed two marathons and qualified for the 2017 Boston Marathon, which I ran in 3:28.31. (Related: This Cancer Survivor Ran a Half Marathon Dressed as Cinderella for an Empowering Reason)
I'll never forget telling my rockstar oncologist, Eric S. Sandler, M.D., that I was going to attempt Boston. "You're kidding?!" he said. "Didn't I tell you once that you would never be able to run again?" He did, I confirmed, but I wasn't listening. "Good, I'm glad you didn't," he said. "That is why you have become the person you are today."
I always say that cancer was hopefully the worst thing I'll ever go through, but it's also been the best. It transformed the way I think about life. It brought my family and me closer. It made me a better runner. Yes, I have a little lump of dead tissue in my leg, but other than that, I'm stronger than ever. Whether I'm running with my dad, golfing with my boyfriend, or about to dig into a smoothie bowl smothered with plantain chips, crumbled coconut macaroons, almond butter, and cinnamon, I'm always smiling, because I'm here, I'm healthy and, at 23, I'm ready to take on the world.