CANCER

Two women try to outrun cancer together, 5,000 miles apart

Ask any runner why they run and you’ll rarely get the same answer. Whether it’s the community it gives, the outlet it provides, or the simple joy of lacing up and getting out, we all have our reasons.

But for two New Zealand natives, it’s a bit more complicated. Their answer? Cancer.

Caroline Steer, 47, and Vanessa Oshima, 47, became friends while growing up in Matamata, New Zealand, a small farming town.

“Caroline and I had been friends because we all went to the same junior high,” Oshima said. “We were just in the same circle and same classes all the time, and we just got along very well.

They remained close until going to different universities. Steer stayed in New Zealand, while Oshima relocated to Tokyo, where she married her husband, Yasu.

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“Then someday, kind of out of the blue, a friend of ours passed away from cancer and a small Facebook group of our class was built to get everybody up to speed with what happened,” Oshima said. “It was 2012, about 25 years since we all had really heard from each other.”

At the same time, Steer was dealing with some major news of her own. She had been in the shower one day and noticed a lump in her breast.

“It was everything we didn’t want it to be,” Steer said. “It was pretty early on in my treatment when I reached out to Vanessa and told her.”

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Oshima remembers getting that first Facebook message from Steer. “She said, ‘Saw you run today. It was really fantastic, and that kind of got me thinking that maybe I should get going again.’ She explained she couldn’t because she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was like ‘Holy s--t.’”

When Oshima, who had been a long-time runner, realized how inspired her daily runs made Steer feel, she made a commitment to run everyday. Using the Streak Running International Incorporation guidelines as inspiration, the two agreed on two rules for Oshima’s streak: she had to run a 5K, and she had to run outdoors.

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“Running had to be outdoors, because cancer patients have good days, and really s----y days, and when it’s a really s----y day, you still have to go and still have to fight it,” Oshima said. “Regardless of how the weather is, or how I’m feeling, I was just going to have to get up and go do it, because Caroline had to get up and go do it too.”

Over 5,000 miles apart, and still the two women were connected by Oshima’s devotion to running while Steer bravely battled cancer, communicating through the phone and social media. While Oshima was hitting goals like Day 100, then 200, then 500, Steer was hitting some of her own milestones as she underwent chemotherapy for ten months. She couldn’t run, but that did not keep her from trying to get out and get active as much as she could.

“I think I’d just had the first chemo and that hit me like a ton of bricks, so setting small goals became my focus ” Steer said. “It was exciting for me because she would go and do a full run everyday, and I would give myself a small task each day,” Steer said. “I started off with just making myself walk 3K. For me, that was a big achievement.”

“I appreciated what Vanessa did so much, and it was such an awesome distraction,” Steer said. “It allowed me to be able to refocus myself during my treatment and recovery, and help me push my body more.”

The more days Oshima logged, the more attention she drew from those around her. She posted daily photos of her runs with #outruncancer on Facebook and her Instagram @Vanessa_outruncancer. As more and more people caught onto what she was doing, she inspired many runners to start their own steaks.

“I was running to support Caroline, and they were running to support me,” Oshima said.

She continued running, raising $16,000 for the Run for the Cure foundation. The two even met up in Japan when Oshima hit Day 1,000 of her streak to celebrate the milestone.

But then the unthinkable happened. Around day 1,600 Oshima received a diagnosis of her own.

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“I was completely floored when my doctor told me I had breast cancer,’” Oshima said. “She didn’t even sugar coat it, she just was like ‘This doesn’t look so good.’”

Oshima then called Steer, who had been in remission for about four years but had not been running. It was 11:30 at night when Steer picked up the phone in New Zealand and heard the news, and immediately after, she laced up her running shoes, and went for her first run in the dark.

“I always told her I would do the same for her in a heartbeat when she was running for me,” Steer said. “So I started my own streak.”

As Oshima prepared for surgery, the two continued running daily, 5,000 miles apart, together. Oshima even got up at 4:30 a.m. the day of her mastectomy in late March, ran around the hospital and was back in bed by 5 a.m. She hadn’t planned on being able to continue the streak as she recovered, especially her first day after surgery, but her doctor saw how good she was feeling the morning after, and let her do laps around the hospital wing so she wouldn’t break her streak.

“It’s 8:30 at night, and I went out, put on my app so I could track a mile, and ran 45 laps in front of the elevator bay,” Oshima said. “And I cried, I really cried. I don’t know if I cried cause I was tired, or I was happy, or I was sad, but I cried.”

Three months later, the pair are both still streaking. The day of our interview, Oshima was coming from her three-month check up appointment, where the doctor told her everything looked good.

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“It’s really great and positive to hear that,” Oshima said.

As Steer comes close to completing 150 straight days of her running streak, she is also coming on five years of being cancer free. September 11 will mark five years since her diagnosis, and also mark the five full years, about 1,852 days, that Oshima has consistently run.

“Vanessa has taught us so much about the power of friendship,” Steer said.  “And what we can achieve if we let ourselves!”

Oshima hopes that more people realize how running can help, in more ways than one.

“I want to try to open up a little bit of the conversation about how (cancer) is a mental struggle, not just a physical struggle, and how running helped me and the community of runners helped me,” Oshima said. “I think it’s a really, really powerful thing.”

This article first appeared on Runner's World.