On November 1, 2015, Rebecca Cavagnari finished the New York City marathon in 7 hours and 10 minutes. It certainly wasn’t her fastest marathon time. But it was the fastest time she had achieved with just a single lung.
“It’s my one-lunged personal record (PR),” Cavagnari jokes. “I finished, and I’m happy with it.”
The 2015 New York City marathon marked Cavagnari’s return to long-distance running. For the past three years, she’s been balancing lung cancer treatment with her drive to stay active and social.
Prior to her diagnosis in October 2012, Cavagnari was the picture of health. She trained for and completed marathons, ate a balanced diet and never smoked. In fact, her only complaint was an irritating cough that had plagued her for the better part of a year. But her doctor insisted on several occasions it was just allergies.
That made it all the more shocking when she was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma at the age of 47 – just days after she completed the Portland Marathon.
“At my parent’s urging I finally went to see another doctor about my cough,” she says. “This doctor immediately ordered an X-ray, which revealed a 12-centimeter mass growing down the middle of my left lung. They had trouble staging it because of the size, but fortunately it was contained. Had I been diagnosed correctly in the first place it would have been much simpler to treat.”
On October 31, 2012, Cavagnari underwent surgery to remove her left lung. Six rounds of chemotherapy followed and by May 2013 she had finished treatment. Cavagnari credits her running group with lifting her spirits and supporting her throughout her treatment.
“We had been running together for years,” she shares. “We had done destination races in Rome, Santa Barbra, Big Sur and Portland and are really like family. Following my diagnosis, I would go walk around the track while they were practicing. Or I’d go to their Saturday morning run locations and just walk. Even though they were worried, they were accepting. Having their support made it more manageable.”
It was through her diagnosis that Cavagnari learned about the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation (ALCF) and its work with the genetics of lung cancer and funding of research. Through the ALCF she was able to have a piece of her lung tissue genetically tested and learned that she has two very rare mutations that are EGFR-positive. Cavagnari now takes Tarceva® to inhibit this mutation and Avastin® to prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells.
“I do have a couple of spots in my chest that my doctors are still watching, but it’s pretty manageable,” Cavagnari says. “It took some time to figure out a ‘new normal’ but I’m feeling pretty good, and am happy to be back to running.”
A year after her diagnosis, Cavagnari traveled from her home in California, back to Portland to walk the 2013 marathon with her son, fiancé and a one of her running friends.
“I call Portland my book-end event because it marked the beginning and end of my cancer year,” she jokes. “This time I had fundraised in excess of $6K for the ALCF.”
Then, this past September, Cavagnari was presented with the opportunity to claim one of a handful of bibs offered to the ALCF for the New York City Marathon. Though she was short on preparation time – with just six weeks to train – she knew the process and her body well enough to stick with a plan.
“I had been walking, and I know what it takes to do a marathon,” she says. “I made a schedule and stuck to it. I have a friend who race-walks, so I would race-walk with her on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and then do a longer race-walk on weekends.”
This training came in handy during the marathon. Because the oxygen levels in her blood can no longer support the exertion of uphill running, she incorporated intervals into her race.
“I ran the downhill, and then walked uphill,” she says. “I certainly wasn’t alone!”
While Cavagnari isn’t sure about another marathon – largely because of the time it now takes her - she is planning to do more half-marathons and 10Ks. She’s also interested in mentoring opportunities, whether it’s a chance to tell her story, help people with cancer be more active and meet their athletic goals, or encourage people to be more proactive in their healthcare. A book may even be on the horizon.
“My advice to others is to always get an X-ray if you’ve had any cough for more than six weeks,” she says. “If your doctor won’t order one for you, go to a different doctor. That could have made things much easier on me.”
Cavagnari’s other piece of advice is to stay active. In her case, regular physical activity has actually helped her remaining lung expand into the space left by her left lung.
“Every time my oncologist and my surgeon see my scans, they tell me that my one lung is just amazing,” Cavagnari says. “Part of that is pushing yourself harder to do more than you think you can —which is the heart of marathon training. You have to push yourself hard to learn how far you can go.”