Stories of Hope
New York Marathon a Life-Affirming Experience for a Breast Cancer Survivor
Article date: January 30, 2002
Cancer changes the way you look at life. You don't ever forget the reality of the diagnosis, but you have to learn to live life even if uncertain. Seize the opportunity to participate fully in life.
A World Community Rallies and Unifies
Battling a recurrence of breast cancer and a feverish virus, Betty Lawson, age 59, crossed the 2001 New York Marathon finish line in seven hours, 39 minutes. She collected her medal, celebrated with her fellow Peeke Performers and members of Fred's Team, and then checked herself into Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
On her night of victory, Lawson was X-rayed. A strange spot appeared on the film. It was her New York Marathon medal. She had forgotten it, tucked underneath her robe.
In a bedside show and tell, the medical staff admired Lawson's medal. The very doctors who were concerned about her participation in the marathon, Lawson noted, were now inspired to consider being in the marathon themselves.
Several years ago, Lawson would never have dreamed she would or could walk a marathon (26.2 miles), but since she learned she has breast cancer, it has become an important part of taking time for herself and enjoying life to its fullest.
"Cancer changes the way you look at life," said Lawson. "You don't ever forget the reality of the diagnosis, but you have to learn to live life even if uncertain. Life always was uncertain, but you didn't know it. Seize the opportunity to participate fully in life."
"It's like you've been asleep to all the possibilities of life," she added, "and the cancer wakes you up."
Annual Mammogram Caught the Breast Cancer
An annual mammogram in September 1996 caught her breast tumor at Stage II. She was shocked the tumor wasn't tiny.
No stranger to cancer, she had cared for her mother who died of breast cancer in 1993 after a 13-year struggle, and had mourned her father's death to leukemia while she was attending Smith College.
She used all her skills as a think tank research consultant to learn her options. She sought advice from several doctors at Johns Hopkins, M.D. Anderson, and Sloan-Kettering.
Patrick Borgen, MD, chief of breast service at Sloan-Kettering, became her best adviser, Lawson said. He performed a mastectomy, and at the same time a reconstructive TRAM flap procedure was done. She took her nine rounds of chemo at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and finished in May 1997.
Chemo a Supportive Experience
Taking chemo in the basement of the clinic at Johns Hopkins with a group of people at first glance seemed grim. But Lawson learned it was a wonderfully supportive environment. There were many other patients worse off than herself, she said, who made the best of it despite the hard regimen, and shared a positive outlook.
A native of Washington, D.C., Lawson had played field hockey as a student at The Madeira School, but as a mother, was much the spectator in her son's sports. She was far too busy to take time for herself. "This was a mistake," said Lawson. "Make sure you make time for yourself."
Marathons a Fullfilling Challenge
She ended the 90s, completing her first New York Marathon in 1999 with two school friends from Madeira. She walked the Marine Corps Marathon in October 2000, and two weeks later the New York Marathon. In spring 2001 she participated in the Country Music Marathon in Nashville.
Pam Peeke, MD, a Pew Foundation scholar in nutrition and metabolism, and stress physiologist, counsels Lawson on how to keep her immune system strong. When Lawson heard Peeke was entering the 2001 New York Marathon, she said, "I want to do it with you." The word spread among her patients and Peeke had to limit the team of Peeke Performers to 12.
They all participated in raising funds for cancer research at Sloan-Kettering as part of Fred's Team. Fred Lebow, a legend in running and a founder of the New York Marathon, died of brain cancer in 1994. The Peeke Performers raised $60,000 in his honor.
Training for the New York Marathon
Peeke got a trainer, and the team walked/ran three to five miles four days a week, plus a long walk on the weekends, starting at eight miles, adding on two miles each weekend until the length of a marathon was nearly reached.
During training when she shared that her breast cancer had recurred, the team members gathered around her to give their support. Lawson was determined to see it through, whatever it took. Her overall goal was to walk a 15-minute mile.
The training was important to develop conditioning and prevent injury. By walking the distance, the team toughened their feet, learned how to wear the right shoes and socks, and practiced drinking water and Gatorade, eating power bars, and slurping energy gel on the go.
All of Humanity Participated
Lawson and Peeke appeared with news anchor Katie Couric on the Today Show, two days before the race, to help inspire other cancer survivors.
By the time they went to pick up their running numbers at the Jacob Javits Center, Lawson was recognized by runners around the world who were inspired by her story and wished her luck.
"There's nothing better than the New York Marathon," Lawson said. "Just the fact you are participating — even as a walker in the back — it's all part of the same experience."
"There are amazing people of all ages," explained Lawson. "I passed a 91-year-old man, named Abe, running a slow shuffle. Everyone cheered for him. Each year there's some remarkable older man. A woman in her 70s has been walking the marathon for 15 years; her husband meets her and walks with her towards the end."
Lawson saw disabled athletes participate from New Zealand. Members of the Achilles Track Club included the blind running with sighted guides; a man walking on crutches without one leg; and people with cerebral palsy in wheelchairs with others guiding them. She saw a man, his legs paralyzed, lying on a flat, wheeled board, scooting himself with blocks.
"People ran with pictures or names of those they were honoring on their shirts — it was very moving," recalled Lawson. Many ran for charities, including one dressed as a rhinoceros from Great Britain.
All along the route through the five boroughs of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Manhattan, policemen and firemen guarded and cheered the marathoners. High atop their ladders firemen posted signs of encouragement. Lawson walked part of the way with a fireman who was wearing his full gear in honor of his fallen comrades.
"This was New York and America at its best, a very positive spirit," said Lawson. She described a parade in reverse, with runners also cheering the spectators.
"You never wanted to give up; the crowd carried you along," said Lawson.
For Lawson, the intensity of the experience came from walking through all the ethnic neighborhoods, like a microcosm of a small, unifying world — a healing balm after Sept. 11. Hassidic children asked runners where they were from. A Korean community in formal dress had a band playing "God Bless America," which made the runners cry, she said.
Afterwards, at restaurants and tourist sites, Lawson said, the marathoners wore their medals and shared their inspiring stories.
"There's a lot of living in the New York Marathon — a celebration of life in all it forms," said Lawson. "The athletes, the disabled, the charity fundraisers, the young and the old are all doing it together. It's not the speed that matters, but all the living you can cram in. It's very fulfilling, taking you beyond yourself to something much larger. It's one of the most exciting things you can do."