Monroe woman Carla Stewart is a marathon runner and breast cancer survivor. She is dedicating her run to family and people who were not as lucky as her.
Monroe woman Carla Stewart is a marathon runner and breast cancer survivor. She is dedicating her run to family and people who were not as lucky as her.

Carla Stewart made her plan to run 55 miles during this year’s Monroe Relay For Life public one week after finishing her last chemotherapy treatment.

The Monroe woman sent a letter to her “dear friends and family” in December, asking for help spreading the word. She explained she had decided on the distance to honor the 55th birthday she can celebrate because of advances in cancer research, and she is dedicating each mile to someone who has the shared experience.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” she wrote.

Weeks before the event, the Sky Valley Food Bank administrative director sat behind her desk, and told the Monitor she believes she had been unknowingly refining mental, emotional and physical skills needed to fend off the disease for more than half a decade before a tumor was found in her breast tissue.

She had been getting an annual mammogram for years at the urging of her doctor. Stewart was in for a regular check up in fall 2016 when doctors saw something on the display that looked out of place.

They caught it early.

“It was an aggressive form of cancer, but it was the kind that they have good medicines to fight,” she wrote in her letter.

Stewart said the cancer was found at an odd time, when she felt she was her healthiest. After spending much of her life overweight, she and her husband, Eric DeBelly, decided in 2009 it was time to make changes.

The couple started with small steps, Stewart said — she stresses that is important to note. They started exercising regularly, going to the Monroe and Sky Valley Family YMCA every morning, not long after the facility first opened.

Once their routine became habit, Stewart and DeBelly began to focus on food. They ate healthier breakfasts, and eventually worked up to preparing meals for their week ahead.

“The way I used to crave cookies, now I crave kale,” she said.

These days Stewart eats a plant-based diet. While researching the disease, she came to the conclusion consuming meat was not likely the best choice for her. She said she has found studies that show the hormones from animal products over time turn on cancer cells, especially breast cancer.

“We are never going to go back, because I want to do all the things I need to to eliminate the risk,” she said.

Now she is almost a third of the way to her goal of finishing 100 marathons.

Again, building up to complete long-distances took baby steps. She said, like most other runners, she remembers to focus on the mile she’s in, and not the remaining 26.

She was trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2016. That October is when she received her diagnosis.

“That process was unreal for me,” Stewart said. “It took me until my hair fell out for me to believe I had cancer.”

By that time Stewart had made mindfulness, eating well and exercising an intrinsic part of her life. She felt like the chances of her survival were high, she said, but still felt a very real fear; there are no guarantees with cancer.

“Not everyone is so fortunate,” she wrote.  

DeBelly had good insurance through his work, and Stewart had a strong support system and access to good treatment, she said. She stayed on at the food bank part-time, and it was good to be around her supportive coworkers.

The first four months of chemotherapy were the hardest. She said she felt like she had a steady flu most of the time. One afternoon her white blood cell count had dropped so low she had no energy. She couldn’t move, and said she briefly lost the will to live.

DeBelly took her to her doctor, and she was feeling better within hours. Stewart’s husband stayed by her side for the year she was going through treatment, as he always had throughout their marriage. In some ways, she feels it has been harder on him, watching her grapple with the disease.

As usual, he will be there to support her throughout the Relay for Life event on Saturday, June 2.

Stewart is confident she will be able to complete the 55 miles, despite having never finished that distance before. She has always stuck with marathons, and believes it will stay that way.

Family and friends were asked to donate $55 for each person she will be honoring.  A few she chipped in for herself, including a mile for DeBelly. She has raised nearly $4,000 to go toward supporting the research that helped her survive cancer.

“As I run, I will be remembering them, praying for them, and meditating on the stories you tell me about them,” she wrote.

A mile will go to her dad, who committed suicide after fighting prostate cancer for a decade, and another for her aunt. The names of all the dedicatees will be on her back, and she made a bib for each person.

“It’s going to be a very powerful day,” she said.