How One Mom Faced Stage 4 Breast Cancer by Running Marathons

Watch one mom’s challenges and triumphs as she trains for her last marathon.

For years, running had been an integral part of Renée Seman’s life.

She started in 2009 as a way to stay in shape, growing more serious about it after giving birth to her daughter, Diane, in June 2013 — she even signed up for a half-marathon and a trail relay race with friends.

It was while training for these races that she found a lump in her breast. She made an appointment with her doctor, and a biopsy showed she had breast cancer.

Renée’s difficult diagnosis was made worse when she soon learned that her cancer was metastatic — it had spread to her bones. It was at this time that running, which had been a way to cope, became her salvation.

“Obviously, that came as a shock,” Renée recalls of her diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer. “We weren’t really sure what was going to happen, in respect to anything, but the one thing I held on strong to was my running.”

Renée completed her half-marathon and started signing up for more races, daydreaming about her daughter cheering for her from the sidelines. After running the New York City Marathon, she heard about the Abbott World Marathon Majors — a series consisting of the New York, Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, and Chicago races, the largest in the world — and thought, “Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Now 41, the Long Island resident recently completed the six marathons in the series — all while battling stage 4 breast cancer.

Stage 4 breast cancer patient Renée Seman with Dr. Kalinsky.

Renée with Dr. Kalinsky in Central Park, where she was honored with the Susan G. Komen Eliza J. Adams Thriver of the Year award in September. Renée received the award at the start of Komen Greater NYC’s Race for the Cure, which Dr. Kalinsky ran to support her.

In addition to her husband, daughter, family and friends, Renée credits her medical oncologist, Dr. Kevin Kalinsky at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, with helping her cross each finish line.

“Dr. Kalinsky arranged treatment, telling me what to expect and how it would fit into my training,” Renée says, “so I knew not to be upset if I couldn’t run three days after treatment.”

“When we were choosing treatment options, we were keeping in mind her training and wanting to help her achieve her goal,” says Dr. Kalinsky. “We selected and tailored treatments to allow her to have a good quality of life to continue to run.”

Over the past several months, Health Matters followed Renée’s health and running journey. In the videos below, she tells her story.

Kicking Cancer to the Side

Follow Renée as she sets out on a 14-mile run. Hydration pack? Check. Phone for music? Check. Wind? Unfortunately, a check. At mile 9, Renée checks in and admits it’s hard not to think about what cancer has taken from her.

Struggling to Stay Positive

After awakening from a horrible sleep, Renée decides to take a day off from running.

Treatment Day

Renée checks in while undergoing treatment at the infusion center. During this visit, she learned why she’s been out of breath and unable to make more progress in her running.

Flipping the Switch

Following what she describes as “one of the most difficult half-marathons” she ever ran, Renée is in bed with a slight fever. Around mile 10, she considered quitting, not just the race but running in general.

Ready to Go!

Renée and her family prepare to leave for London, and she’s enlisted her “assistant” (aka her daughter, Diane) to help her pack.

Crossing the Finish Line

Renée travels to London to complete her final marathon.

When she reflects on her running journey, Renée says that no one moment stands out, but more the overwhelming support she received from loved ones.

“It was such a roller-coaster ride,” she says. “Seeing my friends and their support, and how many people cared. This is something I wanted to do and they wanted to see me succeed. They repeatedly helped me fundraise so I could make charity spots and traveled with me to cheer.”

Dr. Kalinsky, like the rest of Renée’s care team, has cheered her on every step of the way.

“What Renée has done is remarkable,” he says. “When we treat patients with metastatic cancer, it is our hope they can maintain a good quality of life and live longer, and to be able to continue the daily activities of living they would like to do. And to watch Renée run marathons has been awe-inspiring. Everyone she has come into contact with here is incredibly impressed.”

This includes Laura Graafland, a clinical nurse practitioner at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia who has worked with Renée for several years. “Watching her has been incredible,” says Graafland, who looked forward to the photos Renée shared of her and her family after each marathon. “She doesn’t let bad news get her down, and somehow puts her positive energy back out into the world in a way that is really inspiring.”

After Renée completed the sixth and final marathon in the majors series in London this spring, her care team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia wanted to do something special and planned a surprise celebration for her next treatment appointment. When Renée walked in beaming, she was met with balloons, a stereo playing “Eye of the Tiger” — the song her husband plays to pump her up before a run — and her nurses shaking pompoms.

Before beginning infusions that morning, Renée held up her medal. She was thinking of Diane.

“Hopefully,” Renée says, “if she ever has a rough run, Diane will see me as a role model.”