N.Y. Cancer Survivor 'Up and Running' Again

Jerry MilaniContributor IApril 11, 2013

Melissa Montalto (courtesy of the New Jersey Marathon)
Melissa Montalto (courtesy of the New Jersey Marathon)

Ten years ago, Melissa Montalto had never run a mile in her life—in fact, by her own admission, she had not done anything athletic.  But inspiration can come from where you least expect it, and irony sometimes plays a part.

Montalto's starting line came when a youngster in her son's nursery school was diagnosed with leukemia, and she wanted to help.

"I got a postcard in the mail from the Leukemia Society and it was a half-marathon to raise funds, and I said, 'I'm going to do this,'" said the suburban Albany, N.Y., resident.  "And it snowballed from there. I did the half in Lake Placid, then I got into the marathon, and I'm amazed at what I have been able to accomplish."

Here's where the irony comes in.  Six weeks after completing the New Jersey Marathon in May 2011, and posting her best time, the then-32-year-old was herself diagnosed with breast cancer.  The mother of three children younger than 7 suddenly had a new priority.

"Instead of getting back onto the road to beginning running again, I underwent a double mastectomy and then chemotherapy," she said.  "I worked through most of my chemo but was unable to do any serious running. 

"When the time to train for the New Jersey Marathon 2012 came around, I found my lungs would not take me more than a few miles.  I was told my chemotherapy regimen could particularly affect the lungs.  So, I took the year off but knew I would be back to race another day."

After much perseverance, that day comes May 5 when she will join thousands of others at the New Jersey Marathon, starting at Monmouth Park at the Jersey Shore. While she may not quite be ready to qualify for the Boston Marathon—yet—just getting back on the course is a victory in itself.

"My lungs have taken a toll from the chemotherapy, and it hasn't come back as easily as I would have hoped," she explained.  "But I'm impressed that I can do what I am able to do right now.  Boston can wait."

With cancer can come introspection. 

Montalto sees this race as a perfect venue for her return, as both she and the Jersey Shore are in recovery mode: Montalto from her illness and the coastline from Superstorm Sandy in October.

"I like to say we are both 'Up and Running,'" she quipped, a nod to both her situation and the event's recovery-themed tag line. 

"The experience of being knocked down like the Jersey Shore and I were both knocked down, you need something to look forward to, you need a sense of empowerment.  Running is kind of my pick-me-up, my strength.  I can go out and do it."

Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand.