Running is more than life to Gretchen, even more so now than ever. If you had followed her through her middle and high school track careers, you would’ve never guessed that running would be her escape from lifelong diagnoses and treatments, but that’s just what it is.
Gretchen was diagnosed with adrenal cancer at just 2 years old. After 31 years in remission, Gretchen was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. In 2011, just a year after having a double mastectomy, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, and in 2013, the cancer recurred in her bones. In 2017, doctors discovered it had spread to her sternum.
Gretchen’s double mastectomy and multiple diagnoses prompted the testing of a rare genetic disease – called Li-Fraumeni. Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS) is a rare, hereditary cancer predisposition that significantly increases the risk of developing several types of cancer particularly in children and young adults. This diagnosis meant Gretchen would remain in treatment throughout her entire life.
Through it all, running remained a source of comfort and escape for Gretchen, and she even found that the same mentality she applied to running also applied to surviving cancer. “I feel like [cancer] is a marathon because it hurts when you’re doing it, but you know that you’ve got to finish it. Breast cancer made me stronger – with no excuses. I might not be here to enjoy the next day, so while I can still run, I run,” said Gretchen.
During her first breast cancer surgery and treatment, Gretchen focused on training for an ironman, which helped her push through the treatments and exhaustion. When the subsequent diagnoses came, she continued running and training for marathons and ironman races.
Gretchen uses her job as an outfitter at Fleet Feet Sports in Kingsport, Tennessee, to connect with and encourage others going through battles with cancer.
“I want to inspire other people to run. We have a lot of people come into the store that have had breast cancer, so I share my story with them and tell them how much running helps get you out there,” said Gretchen.
Gretchen’s LFS diagnosis in 2011 prompted her family members to also be tested, leading to diagnoses for her now late-father, twin sister and 16-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Now, Elizabeth is also fighting cancer.
“On the days I wanted to give up and stay in bed, I knew I needed to be better for her. I had to be strong for Elizabeth,” said Gretchen. “When I was sick, she told me that seeing me be strong and running through my cancer made her strong.”
For Gretchen, the light at the end of the tunnel is research. If it weren’t for the research that found the genetic testing, her sister and her daughter might not have been tested in time to treat their cancers with positive results. And now, the treatment Gretchen is currently undergoing was only in clinical trials when her cancer first returned in 2011.
“To think that it was even in a clinical trial back when I didn’t need it at the time… But when I did eventually need [the treatment], it was an option… because I probably wouldn’t have had any other option if that wasn’t available when I needed it,” said Gretchen. “Now, I hope that when this [treatment] stops working there will be another option.”
Beyond her own treatment, Gretchen knows research is imperative to finding a cure, especially for her daughter and future generations. “It’s very important – the research they’re doing,” said Gretchen. It’s to help my daughter live longer. It’s for the next generation, so that the kids of the future can say, ‘What is cancer?’”
For the second year in a row, Project Zero will raise funds to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the largest non-profit organization in the world that funds breakthrough research for breast cancer treatments and prevention. This year, Mizuno has designed a special-edition BCRF running shoe for Project Zero where $10 dollars from each shoe will go directly toward funding BCRF’s life-saving research. The running shoes, along with other inspiring stories of survivors and supporters, are available at Fleet Feet stores nationwide or online at MizunoUSA.com/ProjectZero.
Share your story of inspiration or support using hashtag #projectzero.