A runner’s tale, seven years after cancer



Jennifer Andress with her husband and sons before the Boston Marathon in April. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Andress.

Jennifer Andress became a local celebrity when she was featured on the cover of Runner’s World in July. Like the others featured on eight different covers, the Hollywood resident had “outrun cancer” and found her way into a running addiction.

Andress had responded to a call for cancer survivors on the Runner’s World Facebook page earlier this year and went to New York for a photo shoot in March.

The magazine’s editor detailed how Andress, 42, had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 35 when she was 24 weeks pregnant with her second son. She had a masectomy and six lymph nodes removed while pregnant. Three weeks after giving birth, she began radiation and four months later had another mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

All of that was seven years ago. She’s been cancer free since 2005 and busy running and raising her two boys, Will, a rising first grader, and John, a rising third grader, with her husband, Keith. The press she received this year was a way for her sons—and all the people she has met in recent years who don’t necessarily know what happened—to learn her story.

After her magazine debut, Andress was written up in The Birmingham News, Magic City Post, and other local media, and it was hard to find a copy of the issue with her cover around Birmingham.

“People tell me they’re glad to have a normal person on the cover who is passionate about running,” she said.

Andress’ sons loved sitting on the set of the Good Day Alabama on Fox 6 when their mom was interviewed and then watching the weather broadcast. “It was amazing,” John told his mom afterward.

Will knows all the stories of all the runners in the issue and their diagnoses, just as he can name every president and every teacher at Shades Cahaba Elementary by first and last name. He asked if they could frame the cover with Amy Dodson, a professional runner who lost her left leg to sarcoma at age 19 and later had her cancerous left lung removed, like they’d framed the one with his mom.

Runner’s World wanted Andress to come to New York for a photo shoot on April 11, the day Representative Paul DeMarco was dedicating a new metal slide at Shades Cahaba. The dedication was an event she couldn’t miss. DeMarco is a close friend who was in her wedding, and the slide was built specially for her two sons and other hearing impaired students at the school; the existing plastic slides could interfere with their  cochlear implants. After the dedication and PTO meeting afterward, Andress boarded a plane for New York.

The prop stylist on the photo shoot brought boxes of running clothes for Andress to try on, but she ended up wearing her own Lululemon shorts from their Birmingham store and a Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama shirt she had made for the shoot.

One week after the photo shoot, Andress ran the Boston Marathon. Her husband and children, in-laws and mother came up to support her. Andress said her kids are obsessed with Ryan Hall, a professional runner at the Boston. “I hope you beat Ryan Hall,” Will told his mom before the race. Hall did beat her (he placed fourth overall), but Andress qualified to run it next year by 2 and a half minutes.
“I really want to go back,” she said

Even after her surgeries in her mid-thirties, Andress said she walked a lot. But it wasn’t until she was 39 that she began to think more seriously about getting back into running. She gradually started running again like she’d done in her 20s and racing to raise money for the Bell Center, where her children had gone when they were first diagnosed as hearing impaired.

In the fall of 2009, John was entering first grade and had just had cochlear implant surgery. Shades Cahaba Principal Sue Grogan orchestrated putting John in Mrs. Lisa Mooresmith’s class; she knew Mrs. Mooresmith’s daughter, Lilly, who was also hearing impaired. When Andress began volunteering at the Bell Center that same fall, she found that Lilly Mooresmith was in her class. It was Lilly who inspired Andress to run her first marathon, the Mercedes, in 2010.
Andress had been running half marathons to raise money for the Bell Center, but with this chain of events at the schools, she knew she had to step it up.

“If I am going to do this, I am going to do this,” she thought. And she did. She raised $5,500 for the Bell Center and ran the marathon in 3 hours, 43 minutes, which qualified her for the Boston Marathon.

“God put that whole chain of events together,” Andress said. “There is no other explanation for it.”

For now, she’s back to training with her 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning running group, The Gnomes, and preparing to serve as PTO President Elect at Shades Cahaba this school year. She’s scheduled to run races in Atlanta and Tupelo as well as the Ruben Studdard Half Marathon and the Vulcan Run in Birmingham in November. She also hopes to run the Boston and New York marathons in 2012.

Andress continues to share her story with the hearing impaired, with cancer survivors and with women who are pregnant and undergoing cancer treatments. “I think we are here to share with other people,” she said. She also shares her love of running, an addictive thrill she is enthusiastic to encourage others to try.

“Go get a good pair of running shoes,” she recommends to beginners. “Walk, then walk and run and then run. You have to be purposeful about it.” She recommends Run University training programs, such as the Couch to 5K, developed by Danny Haralson, who she calls Birmingham’s “godfather of running.”

Like with breast cancer and many challenges in life, Andress said running is about goal setting. “You have to think here’s where you are, here’s where you want to be, and here’s how you get there.”


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