CANCER

High school runner takes on cancer with support of her Minnesota running community

Left: U.S. Olympian Carrie Tollefson recently visited Miranda Mead in the hospital while she was receiving chemotherapy to treat Ewing's sarcoma. Right: Mead races for Wayzata High School. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIE MEAD

Left: U.S. Olympian Carrie Tollefson recently visited Miranda Mead in the hospital while she was receiving chemotherapy to treat Ewing's sarcoma. Right: Mead races for Wayzata High School. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIE MEAD

On November 23, the morning of her 16th birthday, Miranda Mead failed her driver’s license test. A setback, yes, but two days later, a sobering diagnosis put it in perspective.

An MRI for what Mead thought was a running injury revealed that she had Ewing’s sarcoma—bone cancer.

A sophomore on the cross-country team at Wayzata (Minnesota) High School, Mead had been working hard all season but kept getting slower, and by the end of the season, she had to stop running because the pain in her back was excruciating. She had fallen on her tailbone the previous spring, and thought that running had reaggravated that injury.

Mead hadn’t missed a day of school in four years—so not once did she, her parents, or her coaches consider the idea that she could be dealing with cancer.

Life as she knew it—school, running, soccer, and playing in the band—came to an abrupt halt, as Mead immediately began a schedule of chemotherapy and radiation. She never did get to celebrate her birthday, but she and her family hope to have a lot to celebrate when the treatment is over, hopefully in early June.

Mead says that she’s using many of the same mental strategies she would use in a 5K race to approach her treatment. “Being a runner you’re so mentally tough and you’re used to enduring physical pain,” Mead told Runner’s World by phone. “I know this is going to be a long haul, but then again, races sometimes feel like they’re really long and you just keep pushing through because that’s what a runner does.”

Julie Mead, Miranda’s mother, says she’s been blown away by her daughter’s positive attitude.

“Miranda makes cancer look easy. It’s anything but easy. What she goes through, people have no idea, but her attitude and her big smile, she just keeps putting one foot in front of the other,” Julie Mead said. “I asked her, ‘Do you ever get down?’ And she said, ‘Nope, we just have to keep going.’ That attitude makes it so much easier for everyone around her. She turns into the cheerleader for us.”

Mead’s Wayzata High School cross-country teammates and coaches—all 180 of them or so—have been a tremendous source of support as well. Head coach Dave Emmans is known for not only coaching the Wayzata girls to the 2013 national cross-country championship, but also emphasizing teamwork and the psychological approach to the sport.

Shortly after Mead’s diagnosis, the team met to discuss how they could help. One team member created and sold 200 hats in support of Miranda. Former Wayzata coach Addy Hallen brings Mead crazy knee socks every Friday, because wearing loud socks to Friday cross-country practices is a team tradition. Emmans went to visit Mead in the hospital right away, and a Wayzata cross-country alumnus, whom Mead has never met, sent a care package. Each of Mead’s many teammates wrote her letters, which they’re sending off one at a time, to provide support for months to come.

“Some of these letters that they’re writing are so thoughtful and they’re funny, but they’re spiritual,” Julie Mead said. “These kids are just amazingly supportive. Cancer would be a pretty scary thing for anyone to understand and get their arms around, but these 15- and 16-year-old kids, they just jump in with both feet. They’re here to support her, they talk to her, they want to know what’s going on. It’s really been amazing.”

Mead’s 5K season best of 22:43 (well off her personal best of 21:10) put her three seconds away from earning a varsity letter. But once Emmans found out why, he awarded her the letter.

“After my coach found out everything I had gone through—he found out I had a six-inch tumor and was still running these times—he said, ‘I’m not giving this letter to you; you earned it,’” Mead said.

Mead has also received support from Minnesota running royalty. Carrie Tollefson, a 2004 U.S. Olympian at 1500 meters, came to visit her in the hospital and brought a care package from Girls on the Run Twin Cities. The visit was covered by a local news station.

During that first visit, Tollefson told Mead she had someone she needed her to meet. Tollefson returned with Gabriele Grunewald, who won a 3,000-meter national title and represented the U.S. at the World Track & Field Championships, among many other accomplishments, after two bouts with cancer.

Mead says she took inspiration from Grunewald’s story.

“She told me, ‘It gets hard, but it will get better,’” Mead said. “She’s a really good inspiration because her times before cancer were really good, but after she defeated the cancer, her times are now a lot faster. It’s really encouraging to think that after I beat this cancer, my times will get faster as well.”

Mead has contact information for Tollefson and Grunewald, and they’ve told her to reach out to them any time she needs some extra support.

Once her treatment is complete, Mead is looking forward to resuming her normal activities.

“I kind of look at this as a bookmark in my life, and once it’s over, I’m excited for what I can accomplish as both a soccer player and a runner,” she said.

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For the time being, Mead, a straight-A student, has had to stop attending school. She continues to take classes, with the help of a tutor, and she plans to stay on track to begin her junior year with her classmates.

Julie Mead said that thanks to her family’s good health insurance, her daughter’s cancer will not pose a financial hardship for the family. However, she is looking at how the family can use the attention they’ve been receiving to raise awareness and money to support cancer research.

“We spend way too much time in the hospital seeing very small children that are dealing with cancer and it’s a horrible thing. No one should have to go through it,” Julie Mead said. “It’s a huge community that has been helping us get through this.”

Miranda Mead has noticed it, too.

“I feel like my diagnosis has brought out the good in so many people around our community because everybody’s willing to help us out in whatever [way they] can.”

This article originally appeared on RunnersWorld.com.