Sarah Cawley kept running.
Even after the physician assistant developed cancer under the nipple of her left breast and it spread to her lymph nodes, she ran. Through the long spring, summer and fall of 2014 and early 2015, after a single mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and a clinical trial, she kept going.
On her best days, she maintained a training plan that consisted of four weekly 3- to 5-mile runs and one between 6 and 10 miles. On her worst days — right after chemotherapy, when getting to the bathroom could be a challenge — she walked on a mile-long path in a nearby park.
Motivated by a promise she’d made to her younger daughter Meghan, a physically challenged toddler who had yet to take her first steps, the Medina mother of two remained strong.
“I had committed to run a half-marathon in her honor every year until she could walk or I couldn’t,” Cawley, now 35, remembers. Her efforts — even those mile-long walks that could take half an hour to complete — yielded practical results.
“It actually helped me feel better,” she says.
Exercise can play an important role in treating cancer, says Dr. Jame Abraham, Cawley’s oncologist and the director of the Cleveland Clinic’s breast oncology program.
It revs circulation and stimulates the brain to release feel-good endorphins, both of which help combat the fatigue associated with chemotherapy and radiation. It also strengthens the heart and bones, making them less susceptible to long-term side effects such as cardiac pumping problems and osteoporosis that are associated with various treatments.
“If exercise was a pill, it would be a billion dollar pill,” Abraham says.
Cawley also took yoga classes to improve her range of motion that had been limited by scar tissue from the single mastectomy and the subsequent prophylactic removal of her other breast.
But her greatest benefits were mental and spiritual. She recalls bursting into tears while running on the treadmill 10 days after starting chemotherapy: Cancer is not going to change who I am or what I do.
“So much of chemo, it’s a physical battle,” she says. “But where you’re at in your head counts a lot toward how you feel physically.”
Exercise can also help prevent the development and recurrence of breast cancer by reducing estrogen produced by the ovaries and keeping the body at a healthful weight. “There’s a prolonged period of exposure to estrogen,” Abraham says. “That increases the risk for breast cancer.”
Cawley kept that promise to her daughter and completed the Columbus Half-Marathon in October 2014, while she was still undergoing radiation treatment. Meghan began walking six months later.
Cawley even added CrossFit to her fitness regimen about a year ago. “I had tried CrossFit before cancer and thought it was way too hard,” she says. “After going through chemo and radiation, it’s like, This is hard, but I’ve been through harder.”