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Madison Marathon Profile: Jen Johnson

"I run because it's so symbolic of life. You have to drive yourself to overcome the obstacles. You might feel that you can't. But then you find your inner strength, and realize you're capable of so much more than you thought." - Arthur Blank

Life has a way of throwing unexpected challenges in our path. For 42-year-old Jen Johnson (aka JJ), a breast cancer diagnosis last April was a major hurdle. But after enduring intense treatment that included seven surgeries and 16 rounds of chemo, Jen has beaten cancer and is ready to run this year's Madison Half Marathon. 

Focal Flame Photography, the official photographer for the 2015 Madison Marathon events, is honored to share Jen's inspirational story of how she's reclaiming her body - and enjoying life - after beating breast cancer. 

Jen Johnson sports her Madison Half Marathon T-shirt with friends Kris and Stef at the Torchlight 5k in Minneapolis. The photo was taken by Jen’s husband Eric Johnson in July 2014, two months after Jen’s bilateral mastectomy.

Jen Johnson sports her Madison Half Marathon T-shirt with friends Kris and Stef at the Torchlight 5k in Minneapolis. The photo was taken by Jen’s husband Eric Johnson in July 2014, two months after Jen’s bilateral mastectomy.

Focal Flame Photography (FFP): How many Madison Marathons have you run?
Jen Johnson:
2015 will be my 5th [Madison Half Marathon]. I had to miss 2014 because I had a bilateral mastectomy the week prior to the run.

Selfie portrait taken by Jen before she cut off her hair in preparation for chemotherapy.

Selfie portrait taken by Jen before she cut off her hair in preparation for chemotherapy.

FFP: How many total marathons or half marathons have you run? 
JJ:
2 marathons, and 22 half marathons.

FFP: Do you participate in other similar events? 
JJ:
I also like to run the Ragnar Relay (Great River); 2015 will be my 3rd. I have also done 6 sprint triathlons and 1 Olympic distance. I was registered for 3 sprint tris and 1 Olympic in 2014, but the breast cancer diagnosis obviously took care of that.

FFP: What are some of your favorite events?
JJ:
My favorite events and ones I keep coming back for are the Madison Half Marathon and the Lake Tahoe Half Marathon (2015 will be my 5th run in Lake Tahoe).

FFP: With so many races to choose from, why do you participate in the Madison Marathon? What makes it special?
JJ:
Participating in events like Madison help me stay motivated throughout the year...especially during a cold winter! They give me a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It's what got me through 16 rounds of chemo, reconstructive surgery, a total hysterectomy, etc. I adore the city of Madison...the vibe of the run is special to me. My best running buddy Stefanie and I like to go to brat fest afterward and stop at one of the establishments on State Street for a delicious Spotted Cow. Stef and I have run many half marathons together in a half dozen or so states....she helps keep me motivated. 

Children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo taken by Jen during a volunteer medical service trip by Seattle Alliance Outreach, a medical nonprofit. Jen serves on the board of directors of the organization. She brought indestructible soccer balls for the youth to play with after seeing children using broken bottles and rolled-up dirty diapers for soccer games. 

Children in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo taken by Jen during a volunteer medical service trip by Seattle Alliance Outreach, a medical nonprofit. Jen serves on the board of directors of the organization. She brought indestructible soccer balls for the youth to play with after seeing children using broken bottles and rolled-up dirty diapers for soccer games. 

FFP: Can you tell us what it has been like to train for race season after battling cancer?
JJ:
I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ in April, 2014. The past year has been a roller coaster of surgeries (7!) and chemotherapy. Training for this race has been tough. It is my first "big" run after this ordeal and it has been stressful and hard to build my endurance up. My doctor says it is the best thing for me, though, and that resuming intense physical activity results in a 36% lower chance of recurrence of cancer. Mentally, I just want to "get back to who I was" before my diagnosis. Chemo and steroids really do a number on you...so I'm hoping that if I'm able to complete this run I will feel better about myself and like less of a patient.

Truthfully, I'm slower than a turtle but as long as I'm able to be out there, I will do my best.  I also miss being part of the running community. I always felt good being grouped with runners.

FFP: Will you be doing anything to make your races this year more meaningful?
JJ:
I am hoping to raise money for my relay for life team (Anoka County Relay for Life Pirates of the CURE-i-bbean), which benefits the American Cancer Society. 

FFP: Are there any personal accomplishments you would like to mention?
JJ:
I'm on the board of directors of a volunteer medical group out of Seattle (Seattle Alliance Outreach). We take several trips to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia each year. We are working on building a kidney dialysis center and have assisted with renovations to the ORs and the recovery room of the Black Lion Hospital. When I went there in early 2014 (the month before my cancer diagnosis) I brought over indestructible soccer balls for the kids around the hospital with funds raised by my 13 year old son. I was compelled to do something after I visited Addis and saw the children playing soccer with broken bottles and rolled up dirty diapers.

FFP: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
JJ:
I'd like to encourage all women to get their mammograms!
[Editor's note: For more information about breast cancer detection, visit the American Cancer Society's website.]

This article is part of a series featuring athletes who are participating in a Madison Marathon event in 2015. The Spring Half-Marathon race will occur on May 24 on the streets of Wisconsin's capitol city.  For more information or to register, visit Madison Marathon.

- by Erin Patterson