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Race Against Time: Young Runner Survives Fast-Spreading Cancer

By Joshlyn Racherbaumer for BJC TODAY

Heather Reding

August 20, 2012 – Breathe in. Breathe out. Heather Reding continued to run despite the rising challenge deep inside her lungs. It was a normal day on the pavement, a typical run, but something felt different. She couldn’t quite catch her breath. She forged ahead, inhaling deeply to find air.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Reding headed to her family physician under the impression that she had possibly developed adult-onset asthma. After a brief examination, her doctor ordered a chest X-ray for Reding. Better to be safe than sorry.

Reding still wonders to this day what would have happened if the doctor hadn’t suggested an X-ray. It revealed a large cancerous mass in the middle of her chest that was growing rapidly. She was 26 years old. She never felt any pain or had symptoms other than breathing issues while running. The mass had most likely developed over just two months, spreading quickly throughout her chest.

Tim Pluard, MD, and Lannis Hall, MD, MPH, of the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital set to work with prescribing three months of chemotherapy and radiation. Reding continued to exercise during her treatments, although some days were more trying than others.

“I literally couldn’t move my arm to change the remote when watching television a couple of days after chemo," Reding says. "The radiation irritated my lower esophagus so badly that I couldn’t even eat or drink water. I was even admitted to have fluids replenished through an IV.”

Reding's family support system kept her grounded during this time. Her grandmother, who also had been diagnosed recently with cancer, even joined her in her chemotherapy sessions, sharing words of encouragement and a sympathetic ear. When Reding’s hair began thinning, two friends and two of her cousins scheduled a “hair-shaving party” where they, too, buzzed their long hair to show support.

These same friends encouraged Reding to keep running during the most difficult weeks of her young life. With their support, she slipped on her running shoes and set out to train for her first half-marathon – 13.1 miles – during her exhausting rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. The week after finishing her chemotherapy, Reding crossed the finish line to find all of her family and friends cheering for her and holding signs. She had done it. She had survived.

Now, at age 29, Reding has beaten the odds. She is in remission and continues to run, having completed eight marathons since her treatment. And her time at Siteman has encouraged her to pursue a nursing degree.

“I’m glad I went there," she says. "The nurses and doctors made it so much easier to get through something so difficult. They made me feel better by being kind and understanding and explaining everything thoroughly."

Although she continues regular visits for follow up, Reding remembers to stay positive and lean on those she loves. “Look to your support system,” she says. “My family was a huge part of helping me make it through. I had to have a positive attitude. This is such a small part of my life. It taught me to be strong, and I was truly lucky. I just can’t take every day for granted.”

Breathe in. Breathe out.