Trail Sisters Half Marathon & 10k

September 14th • Buena Vista, CO

Running Through Breast Cancer

Susie Gettes is a Philadelphia local who has been a competitive recreational runner for over 30 years. She has competed in all running distances, including trail runs, marathons as well as triathlons and duathlons. She is a licensed psychologist with training in sports psychology, a certified physical education/health teacher and a certified running coach.

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I am a runner. I am also a Breast Cancer Survivor.  It is still hard to say and write that second sentence down, but it is as true as that first sentence.  It has been six years since my initial diagnosis, which was a whirlwind to begin with; it all happened so fast and of course so surreal.  Being a runner throughout my entire life, leading a healthy lifestyle…never smoked, don’t drink, running for over 30 years, eating healthy etc., I was in shock.  I couldn’t stop reading all of the risk factors that I did not meet.  But here I was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage 1 but it did require a right breast mastectomy.  Of course, my first question was, “I am going to die?” the second question, “When can I run again?” 

A few weeks before my surgery my family and I took a short vacation to the mountains.  When I would go out for my runs, I remember how I kept saying to myself, “I have cancer…I am running with cancer in my body” but I don’t feel any different.   Once we got home from vacation, I truly could not wait to have the surgery and be rid of the cancer.  The thought of having my breast removed did not really impact my thinking, it was just about getting the cancer out.

During my consultation with the surgeon, who was doing the breast reconstruction, our conversation was basically me telling him, “I don’t want to change anything.  I am a runner so I don’t want big boobs.”  Well, anything than what I had, to me was considered “big.”  And so, it began, the initial surgery, the removal of my breast, an “expander” was put in place- to make room for the eventual implant.  I had to have a drain in place for a week so I was told no real activity, to allow healing and to prevent excessive fluid flow. After a week of recovery and the drain was removed, I was able to go for walks which led to slight jogs and before I knew it, I was back up to running, like nothing changed.  Except now had constant pain in my right chest and my body felt foreign to me.  My breasts were also “big” and every time I saw a picture of myself all I saw was my “boobs!”  Since always being so active and in tune with my body, having something foreign and so noticeable to me never felt right, mentally and physically. It really impacted my body image, which was already problematic. 

I was back to “running” two-three weeks after my mastectomy.  I was not back to running hard or long but I was back.  Each venture out to run was mentally healing as running has constantly been for me.  However, physically, I never felt right.  Thankfully, I did not require chemotherapy but in total, I had six separate surgeries for the breast cancer, not including the various biopsies.  So, through the past six years, it has been surgery, recovery, back to the grind.

Months after my mastectomy and then implant placements, life got back to normal.  No one would ever know I had breast cancer or a mastectomy unless I told you.  Except, my body never felt right or looked right, to me.  I experienced constant pain and pressure, that nothing seemed to relieve it.  When I would go for a run, I would wear two sports bras, wrap KT Tape around my fake boob and hope for the best.  Running never made the pain worse it was just a constant, nothing made the pain go away.  There were days when I would go out for a run and still say, “why me?” None of the physicians could figure out why I had the pain.  Some suspected because I had minimal fat, so I would feel it more.

Over the past few years, I have trained myself not to focus on it, when out for a run and rather think about how going through this has made me stronger and more determined to live my life as I want, and not let this get in the way.  So not only would I mentally have to manage the pain of say a long run, I had this constant nagging distraction which I had to compartmentalize somehow.

Having undergone the mastectomy and implants physically may not have impacted my running, but it did impact my body image, my feeling of being flawed in some way.  It has also impacted my distortion of “being a runner equaled invincible health.”  This continues to be a continuous stream of thought in my daily life.

While running, in general, I try to visualize myself being light, free and unstoppable, but my “new breasts” always made me feel heavy.  Several times I asked my plastic surgeon, “What weighs more breast tissue or implants?”  His answer was always “breast tissue.”  My response was always, “Well, it doesn’t feel that way…I feel like I have a sack of potatoes on my chest!” We would chuckle and each yearly visit I would tell him, I need to get these out.  Finally, I did!

I am now three weeks out from my explant surgery and am almost physically healed.  I do feel lighter, physically and mentally.  I love having MY body back, because that’s what it feels like, even though I may be missing a breast.  As I prepare to head out the door for a run, my shirt fits better, my jacket is no longer tight…but I also think will anyone notice that I have one boob? Oh, who cares?  I could put a pad inside my sports bra, but who is that for? Not me.  I tend to be a minimalist runner, carry only what I absolutely need, so why would I carry a pad in my bra!?

Six years later, I can finally say I have my body back. I am missing one breast but my body is back.  I feel more like me, running with my “old body” lightens my steps. I am a runner, this does define me, but breast cancer does not.  Being diagnosed with breast cancer has taught me to appreciate my own body, not what society wants females to be, to listen to myself, to value life, to not wait to do the things I want to do or show the people I love the love.  I am grateful for my body that is still able to run and most of all to my family that loves and supports me through this journey of life, running and healing!

It’s not about having breasts or not, it’s about living and being the best you, you could be.  Being diagnosed with breast cancer has given me the push to open myself up to new possibilities, to stop waiting and live with passion and purpose.  Love more, run more and live more.

One of breast surgeon’s in the practice where I go, authored a book: The Healing Consciousness: A Doctor’s Journey to Healing, Beth DuPree; a particular passage resonated with me: “No one returns to the life they had before cancer.  It is impossible, too much has changed.” (pg. 109). She talks about “healing” not just from a medical/physical perspective, but a whole healing.  “…healing is the most important aspect in the treatment of cancer.  Healing occurs when we reach a safe place within our hearts, release fear and begin to live again.” (pg. 110).

This is my personal journey with running, breast cancer and implants.  Everyone’s experience is different and personal.  Your journey is your journey, persevere and run on!

About the Author

Susie Gettes is a Philadelphia local who has been a competitive recreational runner for over 30 years. She has competed in all running distances, including trail runs, marathons as well as triathlons and duathlons. She is a licensed psychologist with training in sports psychology, a certified physical education/health teacher and a certified running coach.

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5 Responses

  1. Susie, thanks so much for writing this – it is very close to my own story (also diagnosed 6 years ago, ended up having a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, had similar feelings while processing the whole thing, ran as much as I could throughout). I actually was recently interviewed on a podcast and talk about a lot of these things, if you want to listen! The more we talk about this stuff, the better off we’ll all be for it.
    Run on,

  2. As a person with Poland’s syndrome and only 1 breast, I can honestly say it would be totally weird to all of a sudden have to run with 2 (especially if they were bigger)! I am glad you are healing and getting back into YOUR body. Thank you for sharing your story. Amazing stories from amazing women. Always grateful for this space to share.

  3. Susie, thank you for this. Your journey and support meant everything to me as you coached me for the Chicago Marathon with TNT. And you helped me realize that if I had needed a full mastectomy, or even a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy, I would not have needed to get reconstruction. There is nothing wrong with women not having breasts. Cancer doesn’t define me, either. Being badass because we can do this stuff despite having had breast cancer is what defines us!

  4. Susie,
    I was glad I read this. I’m one of the 2500 males who get breast cancer each year. Before surgery, I mentioned to 2 doctors about reconstruction and they both said male don’t normally get it. At this point, though I will look strange on the beach with my left side flat and a scar across to my armpit, I’m used to it and don’t want any more surgery. Since this has been over 2 years, I hope you are still doing well, despite the breast cancer. I have been a runner since High School and I’m 65 now. I started running again about 2 weeks after I had the drain removed. I’d be interested to hear if others felt out of shape after returning. I’ve been running again about 9 weeks and my breathing gets heavy quickly on hills and if I try to pick up the pace a little. Oh well, it’s still early on and compared to many, I haven’t had complications, chemo or radiation.

  5. Hi Susie. Thank you for sharing your story. I am finishing up 12 weeks of chemo now and my left side mastectomy is scheduled for August. I’m leaning toward going flat but can I ask you a strange question? Does your jog bra ride up on the flat side side and do you get chafing when running? My doctor couldn’t tell me anything and there is so little out there on this topic. Thank you in advance.

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