Running Against All Odds

Gretchen Dietrich, 43, of Kingsport, Tennessee, was first diagnosed with a very aggressive form of stage two breast cancer in December 2008. When her doctor suggested she undergo a double mastectomy, she was skeptical. “The lump was just so small,” says Dietrich. And, as an avid runner, she had no interest in pausing training. But her family’s cancer history was too prolific for her doctor to back down on the recommendation. Dietrich’s father had soft tissue cancer; her cousin died of brain cancer; her daughter twice battled leukemia and Dietrich had her own childhood experience with adrenal cancer.

As an additional precautionary measure, the doctor ordered genetic testing. They were in search of a specific dominant gene that causes Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS). “It’s a condition that pretty much means you have a 95 percent chance of getting some form of cancer later in life,” says Dietrich. And, she had it. She decided to undergo the double mastectomy in addition to an aggressive round of chemo. So, despite training for the Chicago Marathon that year, Dietrich reluctantly put away her shoes and agreed to take some time to recover, which wasn’t easy for her to do.

The treatment wasn’t enough. Cancer came back in July nearly two years later. This time, it was stage four. It had metastasized into her liver, lymph nodes and bones. “I was training for an Ironman in August, and I’d lost a lot of weight because of training, so I just didn’t think anything about it,” she says. “I didn’t really have any symptoms, either. I mean, I was tired, but I was training a lot, so it was hard to tell really. But a friend told me I had a weird lymph node on my neck. And, sure enough, the cancer was back.”

She was terrified. Unsure about how much time they had left together, she and her boyfriend, who was also her training partner, decided to get married the next day (they’d only been dating a few months). And, with encouragement from her doctor, she went ahead and completed the race. After all, he said, she’d already put in all the training.

After a successful Ironman in August, Dietrich underwent a hysterectomy and another round of chemotherapy. More races followed. All during treatment.

“I remember that I had chemo on a Thursday,” she says, “and then ran a marathon on Sunday.” She was determined to run no matter what; she wasn’t going to let cancer stop her. “It had taken so much away from me already,” she says.

It would seem that Dietrich was unstoppable. Unfortunately, her cancer was proving to be, too. “At the end of every treatment cycle, when I try to stop treatment, the cancer comes back,” she says. “So, I’ve had to stay on a maintenance level of treatment.”

Indefinitely.

“People are living with cancer now,” she says. “Before, treatment could just prolong life. Now, though, people are living longer lives thanks to a” That’s thanks to huge advancements in both treatment and genetic research.

“People are living with cancer now,” she says. “Before, treatment could just prolong life. Now, though, people are living long term (thanks to advances of chemotherapy and genetic research)."

Dietrich says chemotherapy has severely damaged her memory, that her bones are much weaker than they used to be and treatment has affected her hormones. But she hasn’t given up on running or living the rest of her life in the best possible way.

“I can’t run quite as much as I used to because my bones just can’t handle it,” she says, “But I just have to be smarter about my recovery and my cross training. Plus, I am in charge of the running programs at Fleet Feet Kingsport, and that has given me so much purpose. Just to see people who love running as much as I do reach their goals allows me to live vicariously through them.”

Still, Dietrich says she has no intention of stopping now; she has big running plans.

“My goal is to run a 50 miler before I turn 45,” she says. “I’m about to be 43, so I still have some time."

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