My Body Experiment: Beating BRCA2
A competitive athlete on running after a double mastectomy
In our series, My Body Experiment, we ask high performers to tell us about major changes they’ve made in diet, fitness, and general wellness. Here, they chronicle the results of their trials, positive and negative.
When you’ve been an athlete your whole life and find out you’re going to be sidelined for six weeks, it’s a tough pill to swallow. But imagine it’s not a minor injury keeping you from doing what you love—you have a genetic mutation that puts you at a significantly higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in your lifetime, and the best way to prevent that outcome is major surgery. New York City-based runner Caroline Plank, 29, faced that obstacle and chose to take on a huge fitness feat shortly thereafter: running the New York City Marathon. This is her story.
She believed she could, so she did. You’re my sunshine. Expect miracles. I looked down at these three mantra bands, given to me by my mother, as I lay in the hospital bed.
First Race Back
I signed up for the New York Road Runners Retro 5-miler on June 4, 2017 as my first race post-surgery. I was going up Cat Hill in Central Park when all of a sudden I felt intense pressure on my chest. My diaphragm was trying to expand but my pectoral muscles weren’t allowing it to do so and I had to stop. An ambulance took me to the medical tent and I felt defeated. I started to think maybe all of those blogs had been right.
I took a few weeks to rest and let everything settle down and during that break I started to feel fired up again. I wasn’t going to let this stop me from achieving my goals. I began working with a running coach, John Henwood, who ran in the 2004 Athens Olympics for New Zealand and has helped several women get to the Olympic trials. With his guidance, I adjusted my training. The speed workouts were a lot harder and I was so exhausted after the first session that I needed a three-hour nap.
Instead of doing yoga, John had me focus on more strength-based workouts. While I started doing push-ups eight weeks post-op, I found it was crucial to specifically target my chest and build up my pectoral muscles. John helped me with a fueling strategy; before working with him I would have a piece of fruit for a long run but would find myself crashing. Now, my pre-run go-to fuel is a banana, a Huma gel packet, Nuun hydration tablets, and coffee. I’ve been a vegetarian since college (and vegan for the past two years) and I wasn’t getting enough protein. Since my surgery, I’ve been focusing on adding more plant-based sources into my diet that help sustain my workouts. Most importantly, John encouraged me to listen to my body and prioritize rest days.
From then on, most of the training for the marathon went smoothly—until six weeks out. Surgery leaves your immune system compromised and I came down with pneumonia. I had to take three different types of antibiotics that were pretty heavy duty; they can make you more likely to tear a tendon so I couldn’t run while taking them. As a result, I didn’t have much of a taper period.
I was a bundle of nerves on the starting line and couldn’t believe I was finally there. My name was written on my shirt and the crowd support was incredible. By mile 22 I was telling myself don’t worry about Boston, just get up this hill. I didn’t have any tightness in my chest, but I was experiencing the so-called wall that many marathoners talk about. I saw a sign that said just put one foot in front of the other, that’s all. Whoever made that sign, thank you. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and surprisingly when I reached the finish line I seemed to be in decent shape compared to those around me. I had done it. I finished my first marathon less than a year out from a major surgery and I qualified for Boston 2019 with a time of 3:31 (a pace of 8:04 minutes per mile).
My chances of getting breast cancer now are pretty close to zero but I’m still at risk of getting cancer in my lymph nodes as well as other forms associated with BRCA (ovarian, melanoma, and pancreatic). But I’m a true believer that obstacles are put into our way to make us stronger. I probably wouldn’t have run the New York City marathon if I didn’t have the mastectomy. I’d like to improve my marathon time at Boston next year and I’ll always focus on seeing the silver lining no matter what happens.
Ultimately, what I’ve learned from this is that you can still do amazing, monumental things no matter what challenge you face.
Caroline Plank lives in Brooklyn with her fiancé Trevor and their rescue dogs. She’s a speech language pathologist and regional manager at Language Fundamentals. For more on her journey, check out her website and watch her documentary.