Howland woman completes 100-mile trail to celebrate life

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Editor’s note: This is third in a series of Trumbull County residents who are sharing their breast cancer journeys on Tuesdays through October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

HOWLAND — How does an ultra marathon runner celebrate beating breast cancer? By running 100 miles, of course.

“I didn’t let cancer beat me. Instead, I let my cancer fuel me,” Barb Kosinski, 45, of Howland, said.

“My goal became to beat cancer and the 100-miler in the same year,” Kosinski said. “I’ve always been adventurous but I don’t think I would have signed up for the 100 had it not been for cancer.

“Cancer isn’t just an illness where you receive treatment and go along your way. Well, it hasn’t been for me anyway,” said Kosinski, who is the officer in charge of the Brookfield Post Office. “It really takes a toll on you mentally. I live with the idea that it can come back at any time.

“I realize some people aren’t as lucky as me and there is almost like a survivorship guilt that I feel. My heart just breaks when I see people who need more treatment than I did. I don’t know why I had it easy so I try and do my best to be a good example and keep living the life I love.”

Kosinski, a 1989 Niles High School graduate, had been a distance runner for four years when the diagnosis came.

“I started running because I wanted to do something cool for my 40th birthday, so I signed up for the San Francisco Marathon. I was never a runner before this goal,” she said.

She began training for ultra marathon trail running about a year before her diagnosis.

“I was registered for my first 50-mile trail race last summer,” she said. “Two weeks before that race, I went in for my scheduled mammogram and then a follow-up mammogram and ultrasound. A few days before my race, I received a phone call from my doctor that I would need to go in for a biopsy.

“Wanting to go into my race with a clear mind, I decided to schedule the biopsy after the race. Two weeks after I completed my 50-mile race, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer.”

“I was 44 at the time of my diagnosis. Having no family history of breast cancer and being an active person, my diagnosis came as a complete shock,” she said.

“I guess the way I took the news was like a punch to the stomach. You lose your breath, hunch over, but you stand straight again. I don’t let anything keep me down for very long.

“I had some moments where life felt heavy but I knew I could get through it because I had to,” she said.

“The reality was, I didn’t know right away how bad things were. I made sure all my finances were in order and called about life insurance. In a matter of hours, I sucked it up, dried my tears and I switched into business mode. I didn’t want to have anyone have to worry about anything for me. I was prepared to have everything in place myself.

“I lined myself up with a great team of doctors and trusted that they were going to take care of me, and they did.”

Catching it early was a blessing. She required radiation — five days a week for four weeks — but no chemotherapy, and she experienced none of the side effects common to treatment.

“I experienced some fatigue, but I considered everything tolerable in comparison to other patients,” she said.

“I continued running all through treatment. It kept me sane,” Kosinski said. “I had an oncology doctor that was assigned to me. In our session, I was telling her about my trail running.

“Because my cancer was estrogen-based, I was forced to discontinue birth control pills. The pills actually helped me with other female issues. When I told the doctor I wanted to continue them until my races were finished, she raised her voice at me and told me that maybe I shouldn’t run as far. I immediately was closed off from anything else she had to say.

“I instantly looked for another doctor,” Kosinski said. “She might as well cut off my legs!

“I learned how to ‘dress’ my incision sites to make it comfortable enough to run. I actually ran a 50K and beat my fastest time on my last week of treatment,” she said. “I was very lucky and didn’t have many side effects.”

When she finished treatment, “I needed to do something big to celebrate my new-found life. I registered for a 100-mile trail race. The race I chose was called the Mohican 100. It is a trail race in Loudonville and is a fairly difficult course with some good hills. It was also on my birthday.”

The course was two 26-mile loops in the park, plus two 24-mile loops, all of which had to be completed within 32 hours.

“There may be a few people that decide to take a quick nap during the race but that was not my goal,” Kosinski said. “My goal was to finish under the 32 hours.

“I ran / hiked almost constantly for 31.5 hours. I took a short break to have my feet worked on because I developed blisters on both feet. They were pretty large and on the pads of my feet. They fixed me up and away I went.”

Because of the time limit, runners were pulled from the course if they didn’t reach aid stations on the last loop within certain times.

“I had a pretty good cushion leaving the last aid station so I took the last few miles very conservatively,” Kosinski said. “I was signed up for the Bay of Fundy International Marathon the following week — and yes, I finished that one too.

“I started the Mohican 100 on my birthday (June 18) and finished it on Father’s Day (June 19). It was an awesome day,” she said.

Her dad joined her for the last stretch so he could cross the finish line with her.

“There were about 121 finishers, about 21 of them female, and a little over 100 people dropped from the race,” she said. “I completed that 100-mile race, and few weeks ago, I celebrated my first year being cancer free.”

She said her family — parents Bob and Mary Lou and sisters Kathy and Beth  — and friends played huge roles in her recovery with all their support. Kosinski also credits her cancer success story to the trails.

“I honestly can tell you that running saved my life,” she said. “If it wasn’t for trail running, I’m quite sure my outcome would have been different. Running keeps me sane. I find peace in the woods and I was up and out two days after surgery.

“I was allowed to hike and walk so I spent whatever time I could on the trails. My doctor gave me 14 days to rest with no racing, and on the 16th day, I ran a 50K. It was the most amazing feeling.

“What’s great about trail running is that it has the most amazing community,” she said. “I’ve met some really great people who have been really supportive and encourage me in my crazy running. They are honestly like an extended family.”

The keys for a positive outcome, Kosinski said, are support, attitude and setting goals.

“I think it’s important to find a team of doctors that you can build a bond with,” she said. “I think a lot of people are afraid to ask questions or feel uncomfortable disagreeing with a doctor.

“It was important to me to find doctors that understood my lifestyle, or at least cared about my feelings and took time with me. It’s OK to switch doctors until you find a personality that you click with. As long as your doctor agrees with it, it’s OK to keep doing what you enjoy.

“In my opinion, it’s good to keep a regular routine. For me, I wanted to go on my own journey. I didn’t want to research much on social media. I didn’t want to see the negativity. I asked my doctors questions and anyone that was involved in my treatment. It doesn’t always have to be the worst-case scenario.

“I like to make jokes and at times it’s probably inappropriate, but it is what makes me comfortable. I like people to feel comfortable around me and smile and laugh,” Kosinski said.

She also took cookies, cupcakes or some other treat to the hospital staff at the end of each week of radiation. On the final week, she added balloons.

“Each week was a week toward health,” she said. “Everyone celebrated with me whether they liked it or not! I think it’s important to celebrate life, especially after conquering something like cancer.”

bcole@tribtoday.com

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