Sarah Emerson is no quitter.
Oh sure, she quit her college soccer team because it involved too much running. “Growing up, I hated running. I played soccer and was a goalkeeper as a way to be part of a team but do as little running as possible.” Once she got to college, the intensity of practices ratcheted up, and she couldn’t hide from running. So she quit – a decision that makes her laugh when she looks back. That just wasn’t her time.
Emerson spent several years coaching and going to the gym, where she spent her time lifting weights and avoiding doing cardio. In 2009, she went to cheer on a friend who was running a 10-mile race, and that inspired her to start running. “Being at the finish line of that cold, February race in Maine was exciting, and I was missing the competitive aspect that soccer offered me growing up,” she explained.
“I left the race and went right to the gym and ran six miles. From there I signed up for my first 10K, which then turned into running a half marathon. I took time off to have my son in the summer of 2010, and then got back to it as soon as I was cleared. I then got into the marathon and ultra-marathon distances and completed a 50 miler in 2015.”
Her running was going well, and she was using it to help others. In her bigger races, she fundraised for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. In two years, she raised more than $10,000 for the hospital.
Then in mid-2016, she was diagnosed with a herniated disc – her second. Her doctor, chiropractor and physical therapist all warned her that riding a road bike would make her injury worse.
“In an attempt to stay fit and connected with the running community, I got an ElliptiGO, which was the best decision I made.”
Emerson quickly rejoined her spot in the running community, but this time with a higher viewpoint as she stood on her green 8C and rode alongside her friends, pacing them on their runs. Throughout last summer and fall, she rode her ElliptiGO bike 4-5 days a week, averaging 50-70 miles a week. When winter came, she reluctantly set the bike aside. “I don’t have an indoor stationary trainer, and living in Maine meant I had to put it away for the winter and wait till the roads were safe enough for me to ride on this spring.”
Just as the spring thaw was starting to take hold in Maine, something else brought a chill to Emerson’s life. During a routine annual physical exam, one that she had cancelled once and nearly twice, her primary care physician felt a pea-sized lump in Emerson’s left breast. Her doctor wrote orders for an ultrasound and mammogram. “To be honest, I wasn’t really worried about it. After all, there’s no way I had cancer. I am too young, too healthy and I have no family history. I was called later that day with an appointment for a mammogram three weeks later and still thought nothing of it. I felt like if they were really worried, they would get me in right away.”
After those tests and a biopsy, the results came back on March 8, 2017: invasive ductal carcinoma, which is a type of breast cancer. “I was completely blindsided,” she said. “I had no idea I was living with cancer.” She thought back to that annual physical that she had nearly cancelled for a second time, and how it had changed her life.
Since then, Emerson has endured a barrage of doctor appointments, tests, scans and genetic testing, all while juggling a full-time job and family responsibilities. “Initially, I was scared. I’m 33 years old with a 6-year-old son and a husband. I am too young to die, and I have a long life left to live.
“The best words I heard came from both my surgeon and oncologist when they both assured me there was good treatment outcomes for this form of cancer, and that I was going to live. Once I heard that, I took a big deep breath and everything after that was just something I needed to do to get through this.”
In late March, she started an eight-week round of chemotherapy with a concoction that’s nicknamed the “red devil.” It was the toughest chemo they could give her, and it came with some heavy side effects, including nausea, body aches, mouth sores, headaches, fatigue, night sweats and constipation.
“Each week it became a little harder to bounce back from it, and those two months I was receiving that treatment were like a huge roller coaster. I had some days I felt great and days I thought I was at my lowest low. During this time I wasn’t able to work out much, and I gained 20 pounds pretty quickly due to the high amount of steroids I was on.”
After completing that round of treatment, she began 12 weeks of a new, lower dose chemotherapy. The side effects from this treatment are greatly reduced, and the roller coaster of highs and lows is more of what she calls “a balanced-out fatigue.”
Having cancer has impacted Emerson’s ability to exercise because of the fatigue and difficulty breathing when she runs. But now that she is through the “red devil” treatments and feeling better, she has been able to resume riding her ElliptiGO bike, which her body is tolerating pretty well. “I am trying to get out three times a week: two mid-week rides of 10 miles and a longer weekend ride of 25-30 miles.
“I am so grateful for my ElliptiGO and that even though running is too hard for me right now, I can still get some exercise with my ElliptiGO. I also love being able to stay connected with the running community. Being able to ride alongside friends as they complete their weekend long runs makes me incredibly happy. I love being able to ride with runners who are much faster than I am and the ability to build new friendships.”
Emerson hopes the ElliptiGO miles will keep her fit enough so that she can run one of her favorite races, the Beach 2 Beacon 10K, which was founded by Joan Benoit Samuelson. “This is a local race in August and one I run every year,” she said. “I am determined to be on the starting line. The race is the weekend before my last chemotherapy treatment. It won’t be about time but more about not letting cancer take any more from me than it already has.”
The week after the Beach 2 Beacon race, Emerson will begin another round of chemotherapy, followed by 4-5 weeks of recovery so her body can recover before she undergoes a bilateral mastectomy.
Her biggest goal for this year is to beat cancer and to share her story in hopes that she can help or inspire someone else. At the very least, she wants to encourage people to not cancel their annual physical.
But the woman who once quit a sport she loved so she could avoid running has other big goals – goals that don’t allow cancer to define her.
“I want to run the Boston Marathon. I won’t be able to run a qualifier before registration opens so I’ll need to go the charity route, but one thing I’ve learned through this is that life is too short to put off something you really want, and Boston is something I have always really wanted.
“I’ve realized that you really can’t take anything for granted, and I don’t know what the future of my health looks like or how many more marathons I left in me. I don’t want to wait around to check off my goals anymore.”