Dana Giordano was an All-American for Dartmouth and now runs post-collegiately representing Reebok, where she serves as an associate brand communications manager. Dana has been a big supporter of CITIUS MAG from the start. We heard her story and wanted to share it with the CITIUS MAG community because our readers, listeners and followers have always stepped up to do good when we’ve called on it. We have 8 days to go until the Falmouth Road Race and we want Dana to hit her goal of raising $10,000 for Boston Children’s Hospital.
This is Dana’s story in her own words; followed by a brief Q&A.
Runners are ruled by numbers. They drive our daily schedules, mark our successes, and create milestones. Every running career starts with one. For most, this number is a laughably slow mile time from a middle school track race that can be fondly looked back on years later. Mine is a little different. Five. A five -pound tumor.
When I entered summer 2008, right before my freshman year of high school, I was pretty skinny so halfway through the summer, I excitedly pointed out to my mom that my shorts were not buttoning. It felt like I was gaining some healthy weight, until one day I had a piercing pain in my abdomen.
I immediately knew something was wrong and asked to be taken to the local Cape Cod hospital near my house. After an X-ray and a blood test, the doctor came in and ordered my mom and I go up to Boston Children’s Hospital immediately. He said his hospital could not handle my case.
Several tear-filled hours later, the doctors in Boston confirmed by diagnosis. My gangly 14-year-old frame was hiding a 5-pound malignant ovarian teratoma.
Googling malignant teratomas is not for the faint of stomach. Essentially, it is common for young women to develop cysts when going through puberty. I happened to have had a cancerous cyst that was rapidly multiplying.
To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what happened next at Children’s Hospital: a couple tests, a lot of tears, and many doctors. I blocked it out. My grandmother passed away from ovarian cancer eight years before, so my mom had a particularly hard time watching me hooked up to machines and undergoing similar procedures.
Many doctors, including the amazing Dr. Marc Laufer, and one long surgery later and with one less ovary, the five-pound tumor was removed. I returned home with a nine inch scar running down my abdomen and a photo of the 5-pound monster who we nicknamed ALBY for alien baby.
The surgery was difficult, but recovery may have been even harder. I watched almost every minute of the Beijing Olympic while my stitches healed. I was weak and unable to carry more than ten pounds going into my freshman year of high school in New Jersey, which made lugging textbooks around impossible. Even when I finally was cleared to play soccer on the freshmen team, the coach didn’t trust my progress and benched me. I became depressed and stayed home watching YouTube videos alone on the weekends.
And every time I felt I was getting stronger, I had a cancer follow.
For those who don’t know, if you have malignant cells, you follow cancer protocol for five years even if you did not need to receive chemotherapy. We would drive into New York City to Memorial Sloane Kettering every three months. The MRIs and ultrasounds would dissolve me into a shell of a human again, weak and lonely.
I like to describe my love of running like those cheesy love stories where the two heroes meet in kindergarten and don’t realize they are in love until many years later when everything clicks and they can’t imagine being with anyone else.
By summer 2009, I was back in Cape Cod and decided to use my newly-discovered passion to run the Falmouth Road Race and fundraise for Children’s Hospital Boston.
Three weeks later, during one of the routine cancer scans, I was hit with more devastating news. A smaller tumor was growing in my remaining ovary. I went up to Children’s Hospital Boston again and had Dr. Laufer remove the cyst, exactly like one year prior. This time, my chances to ever have a family of my own one day was on the line, but as a 15 year old I could only think about my thing; I didn’t want to disappoint my sponsors by not running the road race. Thankfully, Dr. Laufer performed the surgery and my recovery time was so quick, I was cleared to run the 7.1-mile road race just three weeks later.
It is now 2018 and I am writing this essay from a café in the summer running capital of Leuven, Belgium, as I look to chase a few more seconds off my Personal Best Times PBs. I have had so many opportunities in the past ten years of my life because of running, so, in a really weird and kind of messed up way, I am thankful for my tumor, ALBY. If not for that traumatic experience I would not have gone into running with as much passion. I would not have had the college recruitment opportunities that led me to attend and graduate from Dartmouth College in 2016 as an All-American in cross country and track. I would not have met some of my favorite people in the world. I truly believe that I have been forever changed by that summer in 2008 and I can’t imagine life any other way.
My dream in 2008 was to be NBC’s Olympics host Mary Carillo and tell human-interest underdog stories. I wanted to share what athletes had to do to get to the world’s biggest stage. Although I don’t talk about my surgeries that much, I carry a big chip on my shoulder. I am working to turn that chip into power. I don’t want to be the one telling other’s stories. I want to create a big enough story that makes others take notice. I used to be unable to talk about my surgery without breaking down. Now my dream is to live a life that follows the saying “be so good they can’t ignore you.” Now I bear my scar with pride, below a neon cropped kit.
This year I am running my hometown race, the Falmouth Road Race, to raise funds for Children’s Hospital Boston. I have an ambitious goal of raising $10,000 in honor of the ten years since my first surgery. I will continue to fundraise past the race to commemorate this 10th anniversary of wellness. I am beyond grateful for Children’s Hospital and would not be the person I am today without the world class care and support from the hospital. Please join me in helping other children get well and chase their dreams.
A Quick Chat
Me: Dana, you’ve had quite the summer of personal bests and racing. How are the legs feelin’?
Dana: Chris, pleasure as always. Summer has been killer and I have to say legs are feelin’ good.
Me: Has this been surprising? Because it’s not like these performances are coming the year right after you’re done racing in college. It appears to me that this has taken a bit to build up to and it’s finally coming together.
Dana: Honestly, no. Last year, I essentially took the whole year to prioritize other things in my life instead of running. I told myself that I was going to try living as a “normal” person and not say ‘no’ to fun things because of running. That’s something that I had done for the past 8 years. I missed the Olympic Trials and was really burnt out after 12 seasons at Dartmouth. I was lucky to compete at such a high level for my whole college career but I never felt like I had time to reflect on why I actually enjoyed running.
Me: It’s been 10 years since that scary moment of the diagnosis. How scary was it? You mention your grandmother’s own battle with ovarian cancer.
Dana: Terrifying. I vividly remember my mom saying over and over that she wish it was her and not me. You never want to see your parent in that position. We still sometimes have a hard time talking about it so many years later.
Me: Where did you find bravery because you’re just 14 at the time?
Dana: I wasn’t very brave at 14. It was a whirlwind and I just did what I was told going place to place being taken care of. I’m so thankful for Children’s and my family for doing all the thinking for me because my little brain didn’t really understand. I’ve blocked out a lot of those memories.
Me: You mention watching the Beijing Olympics while recovering. Are there any performances that particularly stick out to your memory?
Dana: Michael Phelps pure domination. I wasn’t a runner at the time so swimming and gymnastics were my two sports of choice to watch. Also, Shawn Johnson being the cutest thing.
Me: The recovery process sounds super hard. What was the weakest that you felt?
Dana: The worst part of recovery for me was being benched in freshman year soccer. I’m a super competitive person and I was literally benched on the team below the JV team… I was so unhappy and most of my friends had made varsity. I had always defined myself as an aggressive athlete so being benched took a big part of my spirit. I generally was very lonely and didn’t have the energy to break that cycle.
Me: You detail some of your early high school experience and falling in love with the sport. Was it difficult at first? I know you had a soccer background but it can be grueling and you had a much tougher journey to even get practice than everyone else.
Dana: My two sports growing up were soccer and ice hockey. I even played ice hockey until my junior year of high school. My high school coach was all about coaching athletes to enjoy the sport later in life. Freshman winter track season we ran around the hallways and ate White Castle on the way home from long track meets. It was all about the fun and long term development. High school track training was never super hard but we always raced hard. I’m so grateful for my high school coaches for keeping it fun. Fun fact: Mark Wetmore coached at my high school in the 1980s so we have a good long term running culture in the school that was resurrected by my coach Dave Szostak in the 2000s
Chris: What’s your favorite race or memory from that first season?
Dana: Hmm this is a tough one. It’s a blur of White Castle, Icy Hot, and bus rides to Toms River. But probably running 5:14 in the mile and surprising everyone.
Chris: Summer 2009 rolls along. How did you train for that race, if at all?
Dana: It was just normal summer training. I was probably running 35 miles a week. Nothing too crazy.
Chris: What was it like crossing the finish line?
Dana: It was awesome and they have the best hotdogs at the finish so we crushed those.
Chris: Here we are in 2018, when did telling your story finally get easier?
Dana: This is honestly the first time that I have told it in some depth. I have always been scared that people wouldn’t care or it was too personal to share. I don’t know why it’s so hard. I find myself making justifications like “if I win this race then people will care”. I have a huge scar so it’s really not a secret that something went down but it does change you as a person. It’s like a stranger asking someone about the meaning of their tattoo without really knowing them. I feel like it is important for people who know me to understand why I run and why I have a different perspective on the sport. Also, I have a platform to share that benefits many other people so I hope through fundraising for the hospital their can be more stories like mine.
Chris: Gabe Grunewald also has shared something about embracing her scar in her identity as a runner. What have you made of her own cancer battle?
Dana: Gabe is such an inspiration. Technically, I had “cancer” but it was contained and I didn’t need chemo or anything like that. Having a rare disease is devastating and I hope that her message can keep being shared. There are so many good causes in this world it almost makes you feel guilty to pick one. Keep on fighting, Gabe.
Chris: It’s been 10 years. What do you hope has been accomplished when we have this conversation again in 10 years?
Dana: Woah the big one. Whatever I become, I want to be a good one.