23-year-old Sara Andrea Hilstrøm finished Cph Half after battling life threatening cancer just a year ago.
23,786 runners finished Cph Half this Sunday. Elite runners run 21 kilometres often, but for some it’s like climbing a mountain.
23-year-old Sara Andrea Hilstrøm was tripping nervously in the huge crowd of runners at Øster Allé. Heavy rain seemed to remind her of the last few years of her life; especially when it stopped shortly before the start.
The story of Sara Andrea Hilstrøm’s dream of finishing a half marathon began three years ago. Sara came home from high school a chilly afternoon in early Spring. Her father sat in the living room, tears running down his face. With trembling lips he told her that he was going to die.
The former Danish cycling champion Birger Hilstrøm got the unequivocal message from the doctors: Even though he had never smoked a single cigarette, lung cancer had spread throughout his body. And it was terminal.
“I knew that he was sick, but I thought it was just a severe case of pneumonia. When he told me he was going to die my world fell apart.”
Fighting your own body
The doctors told Birger Hilstrøm that he had just few months left, but almost a year went by before Sara and her family stood at his hospital bed. His eyes were closed, but besides the fact that his chest was paused in a breath, he was just in a constant state of sleep.
“My thoughts ran wild. Firstly, I didn’t want to live either. But then, people would miss me, just like I miss my father.”
Life moved on and slowly Sara began to feel better. But she was tremendously tired and at times she had to sleep the whole day through.
“In April 2013, I woke up with a painful eye.”
Sara went to the doctor with her mother and then to the hospital. The events that proceeded were something out of a Kafka novel. Sara was thrown around in the public health system and a doctor assured her that she “definitely didn’t have cancer”.
That doctor was wrong.
Death can lead to life
Following numerous examinations, Sara was diagnosed with lymphoma. Luckily, the chances of survival were good, but the treatment was daunting: 12 cycles of chemotherapy.
“The chemotherapy was the toughest experience I have ever endured physically. Thinking back, it is ironic that the chemotherapy aims at killing parts of me, but it ultimately saved me.”
It is important to point out that Sara’s story – as it is with numerous other surviving cancer patients – is not a story about sacrifice. But as she tells her story, her lips start to tremble and water begins to appear in her eyes.
“Before the last cycle of chemotherapy, I told my mother that I wasn’t sure I would survive it.”
She swallows holding back the tears.
“But I made it.”
Exercise increases the chances of survival
Research has shown that exercise increases the chances of surviving cancer. Sara was unaware of this but began early in the process to exercise mildly.
“I began enjoying long walks. As long as my body permitted, that is.”
Since the doctors declared her cancer-free, the distance increased and suddenly she began tentative runs. As the distance and the kilometres increased, Sara’s confidence grew.
And suddenly, she felt the urge to compete, just as her father had done. She began with minor events, then “Venindeløbet” of ten kilometres, and now Cph Half, 21 kilometres.
This brings us back to the course through Copenhagen and Frederiksberg.
From the moment the running shoes hit the tarmac, all thoughts of cancer and chemotherapy disappear. Now optimistic thoughts dominate. Muscles that were limp and weak just a year ago now drive her forward. Towards the finish line in Fælledparken and the dream of finishing a half marathon in two hours and six minutes. As she finishes, the red digital numbers read: 2:02:20.
Her eyes are smiling when she is caught in her sister’s embrace and radiantly proclaims:
“I won, you lost. Fuck you, cancer!”
Sara Andrea Hilstrøm was declared cancer-free in 2014 and there are no signs of it recurring.