How running buddies nudged breast cancer survivor Jenny Bender toward recovery

How running buddies nudged breast cancer survivor Jenny Bender toward recovery

  • Cancer survivor Jenny Bender of Northampton, in the middle, runs with Jain Lattes, left, Jen Berneche-Stiles, Josh Mechem, Benders's husband, Nunia Mafi-Silver and Amanda Herman. They will all travel to Nantucket Saturday to do a 10-mile run to raise money for cancer programs. CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jenny Bender,runs with her group of friends and husband, Josh Mechem. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jenny Bender,trains with her group of running friends. In the middle is her husband Josh Mechem and one of her running partners, Nunia Mafi-Silver . —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jenny Bender,trains with her group of running friends. In the middle is her husband Josh Mechem and one of her running partners, Nunia Mafi-Silver . —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bender says the support of her husband, Josh Mechem, right. and her running group helped her maintain a running routine throughout her recovery from breast cancer. CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jenny Bender, middle in blue, runs with left, Jen Berneche-Stiles, Josh Mechem, Benders's husband, Nunia Mafi-Silver and Amanda Herman. —CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bender says her running group slowed its pace so she could keep up during her cancer treatment. Lately, Bender’s daughter, Sophie Mechem, third from left, has joined in the running. CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jenny Bender, center, began running with her friends, Nunia Mafi-Silver left, Jen Berneche-Stiles, Jain Lattes and Amanda Herman before Bender got sick. CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jenny Bender, middle in blue,with her running partners, Nunia Mafi-Silver,Jen Berneche-Stiles, Jain Lattes, and Amanda Herman. —CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/2/2016 3:16:10 PM

Things seem pretty normal at the Northampton home Jenny Bender, 41, shares with her husband, Josh Mechem, and their two children.

On a recent afternoon, Harrison, 10, was dashing full tilt through the house while upstairs, Sophie, 7, and a friend stomped and screamed and giggled. In the kitchen, a storage box or two sat on the floor, part of spring cleaning.

There’s not a lot of evidence left of Bender’s tumultuous last year and a half of breast cancer treatment and recovery. Though, she says, she still has a wall full of cards and letters she received during that time.

She’s planning to dismantle that display soon. But first, she’s got a bigger, more public plan to mark the end of treatment and recovery, and the beginning of whatever comes next. Bender and five friends are going to Nantucket Saturday to run 10 miles while their families cheer them on. They’ve dubbed it Bender’s Mender, and it’s a fundraiser for Northampton’s Cancer Connection, and the national Metastatic Breast Cancer Exchange to Unleash Power (MET UP), an organization pushing for more research on cancer which has spread beyond the breast.

Bender is clear on one thing: She doesn’t want hers to be “another pretty breast cancer story that says, ‘Fight hard enough, work hard enough, and you can beat it.’

“Fighting,” she says, isn’t what got her through. “I’m one of the lucky ones — not because of hard work, but luck. I want to acknowledge that. Part of why I’m running is for the women who can’t.”

But running, she adds, helped her through her ordeal.

A group comes together

Bender started running after Sophie was born. “I was never an athlete – a dancer, but never an athlete. I had bad asthma.”

No matter her lack of athleticism, the idea of running appealed, she says, because it offered an easy to do, concentrated workout. She and a group of women friends who were already runners started regular Saturday morning runs. Eventually, Bender worked all the way up to competing in a half-marathon.

Bender’s friend Nunia Mafi-Silver of Florence, says the running time had benefits beyond the obvious physical ones. “There’s something about running with the group for an hour-plus — there’s plenty of time to share ideas and grow close.”

Bender echoes that. “We talk often about how you have focused times — you’re moving, looking straight ahead. It opens up the space to be more comfortable talking about more intimate subjects.”

Bender discovered the lump in her breast while reading, when she rested a hand on her chest.

When she began treatment — chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy — she says a nurse told her she would be unable to keep running. Bender, however, was determined to keep going, even though her stamina diminished dramatically.

Marking progress

She was able to maintain her weekly running routine, though usually she skipped the week of a chemo session.

Mafi-Silver says the group slowed its pace so she could keep up. “She was pretty incredible,” she said.

Bender says the support was key to her recovery.

“My husband would come, and my friends would come and run alongside me, cheering me on the whole way. They would talk about how great it was I was out there at all. It felt really important to me.”

Her ability to run, says Bender, became a way to mark her progress. “I didn’t feel strong, but it tethered me to my inner strength to know that I could still eke out a run. I started noticing when I was able to go a little faster.”

She says it was hard to see her strength decrease. “On the way down, I couldn’t believe I was down to a 13-minute mile — and it was so hard. That’s how I gauged my decline. It brought home for me how weak I was. I could only run a mile and a half. Then, on the other hand — suddenly I was able to do a 12-minute mile, then 11, (then) I’m going 4 miles and 5 miles.”

Bender, who’s a literacy coach for Northampton Public Schools, also kept a journal to track her progress. She eventually turned it into a blog called Writing the Wave, where she chronicled her experience in deft, plainspoken prose:

“Until I return, I leave you with this picture of me cocooned by my wall of cards, which sprouted and bloomed over the last year. This picture, these cards, my wall — they are a tribute to my year, to so many of you, to what I have learned and survived and lost and loved.”

“Writing is my passion,” Bender said. “That has been and continues to be an integral part of my healing. Writing allowed me to process the feelings and fears and make sense of the experience.”

Running also became a time for reflection, Bender says.

“I felt changed by cancer in a way I didn’t like, didn’t welcome. I couldn’t take care of my children the way I wanted, couldn’t stomach food. I was losing my hair and my breast. But by running, I was able to hold onto part of myself I didn’t want to let go of.”

Reflection also helped Bender commit to changing parts of her life. “Many people just want to get through treatment and go back to their old life. I wanted to use it as an opportunity to change and grow.”

That’s meant at least one major shift: Bender is now getting her master’s degree in social work at Westfield State University and contemplating a career change, though she hasn’t decided exactly what it will be.

Turning outward

Once Bender’s running and recovery were on the upswing last December, she and her friends began to plan Bender’s Mender. “We decided we wanted to do a run together, and it took on a life of its own,” Mafi-Silver said, “The planning became fun, a way to mark an end to a tough period.”

They decided on Nantucket as a getaway destination, a place where Bender also has family connections. They created a website and started looking for contributors — not her natural territory, says Bender, who doesn’t use Facebook.

Mafi-Silver’s husband, a fundraiser, helped them decide on an amount. “We set it at $2,000,” Mafi-Silver said. “Within 24 hours, we surpassed that. We kept upping the amount. Now we’re at six and a half thousand. It’s been really inspiring.”

Mafi-Silver says she’s been particularly gratified by the amount of support coming from people who don’t know Bender. Though it makes sense, she says. “Jenny is a gatherer. She’s really invested in community.”

“One of the gifts that has come out of what has otherwise been a terrifying experience is the way that my community has rallied around me, the way it has expanded,” said Bender. “My definition of my community has grown. I’ve had contact with others I haven’t heard from for 20 years.”

When Bender heads to Nantucket, she’ll be joined by her five running friends and their families. They’ll run a 10-mile course on the island that ends at the ocean.

“The kids are making signs, and they’re going to set up Gatorade stands on the route,” Bender said.

Then the families plan to have a big dinner together.

Though there are plenty of large-scale runs and walks for various causes organized by official entities, Mafi-Silver sees Bender’s Mender as an model for those who want to keep it more personal.

The giving is organized via YouCaring, an online, fee-free fundraising platform.

“It shows you that you can organize your own event with your friends. And there’s no overhead,” Mafi-Silver said.

Bender sees the Nantucket run as a way to officially mark the end of a difficult time.

But lately, she has seen a related development that is making her happy.

“My daughter has just decided she wants to run. She’s been asking, ‘Can I go running with you?’ I love that.”

To donate to Bender’s Mender, visit bendersmender.wordpress.com.

James Heflin can be reached at jheflin@gazettenet.com.




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