Racing toward good health

By The Health News Team | March 20, 2023
Rosa Garrett at the 125th Boston Marathon

Rosa Garrett at the 2023 Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas 10K.

Four hours and 27 minutes: That’s how long it took Rosa Garrett to finish the 125th Boston Marathon on Oct. 11, 2021. Exactly one year later, in just under 6 hours, Rosa finished her fourth and final chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer. She had received the cancer diagnosis just five months earlier.

Baffling, shocking and disbelief are just a few of the words Rosa uses to describe learning about the 4.7 centimeter tumor her doctor found in her ascending colon during a colonoscopy earlier that summer. “I still can’t believe I was being told that I had cancer — how did this happen?” she says.

Rosa, in her 50s and an employee of Sharp HealthCare, says she’s fairly attuned to her body. And she should be. The lithe mom and grandmother of two was running 20 to 25 miles per week before her diagnosis — which she received around the same time she learned she qualified for the iconic New York City Marathon, an extraordinary athletic achievement.

A life-long runner for the physical and mental health benefits, Garrett says she never considered running a marathon until her 30s. She was inspired by her older brother, who had died of lung cancer at age 43.

“When he died, he had three marathon medals in his house: one for each of his daughters, the third for our dad,” Rosa says. “That’s something you cannot buy — you have to earn it — and I want to do the same for those important people in my own life.”

She now has more than 60 medals hanging on her wall.

A surprising diagnosis and successful treatment

Rosa’s mother died of breast cancer at the age of 53. But she was told neither her brother’s nor her mom’s diagnoses increased the likelihood of developing cancer herself. She also had a negative FIT (Fecal Immunochemical Test), which screens for blood in a stool sample, less than two years earlier and never imagined her stomach pains could be something serious.

After unsuccessfully trying to troubleshoot the pains with dietary changes, her doctor recommended she take another FIT test, just to ensure everything was OK. It wasn’t — the test was positive.

Rosa then had a colonoscopy, an exam of the large intestine using an endoscope, which is a lighted, flexible tube that can find cancer as well as precancerous growths. She was shocked to learn a golf ball-sized tumor was discovered in her ascending colon.

However, shortly after and to Rosa’s great relief, a computed tomography scan (CT scan), a medical imaging technique used to obtain detailed internal images of the body, showed that the cancer had not spread to other organs. And Dr. Pamela Lee, a surgeon affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital, was able to successfully remove the tumor, half of her colon and a few lymph nodes using robotic surgery.

“Rosa was an active person, and getting back to her marathons was so important to her,” says Dr. Lee. “With robotic surgery, we were able to return her to her normal life sooner and with less pain. I told her to send me a photo when she crosses the finish line at the Boston Marathon!”

Finding strength for a new kind of challenge

However, Rosa’s journey was not yet over. For the next 12 weeks, she would have to endure four sessions of chemotherapy. And while she was vastly familiar with the mental and physical challenges of training for a marathon, she says she didn’t know how to prepare for the difficult weeks ahead.

“I really feel it was my family, my friends as well as former colleagues — some who I had not heard from in years — who really helped get me through,” Rosa says. “It wasn’t easy, but I kept thinking of the encouragement and affirmations I had been receiving, plus the love I have for my family and two young grandsons. That really pulled me through.”

Now done with chemotherapy, Rosa says she’s telling everyone over age 45 to get a FIT test and colonoscopy. She tells her four siblings, and any of her friends who will listen, to talk with their doctor, and if possible, get screened so no one has to endure what she has.

Despite being finished with chemo, Rosa’s doctors suggested she sit out the fall 2022 New York City Marathon. But she is starting to run again — slowly but surely — and feeling stronger with every mile. In fact, Garrett recently ran her first race in over a year on the Las Vegas Strip, finishing the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas 10K in under 1 hour. She says it was exhilarating to be back to doing something that she missed and loved.

“Cancer isn’t going to stop me,” Rosa says. “In fact, my new mantra is ‘You only live once.’ So I’m doing things that I may have said no to in the past, like snowboarding.”

Unsurprisingly, she also has her eye on qualifying for the 2024 New York City Marathon.

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