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Thursday, November 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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My first marathon: Battle with ovarian cancer strengthens woman's will

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Bursting from her front door with an easy, strong stride, Abbe Jacobson has earned a view of what's important in life that's as crisp and clear as the day.

A lifelong nonrunner, she's training for her first marathon, which is less than three weeks away. It's something she never would have attempted before surviving ovarian cancer. She thinks of that every time she runs.

"I can do this. I can do this."

That's what she told herself when she heard that though ovarian cancer is often deadly, it can be highly curable, if caught in time. Hers was found early. Her aggressive, difficult treatment ended 18 months ago.

There was a time when Jacobson, 36, would "cry and moan" to her husband, Curtis Kopf, 38, if they tried to run three miles together. Earlier this month, she ran 21 miles with him. As she did, the scene of being diagnosed came back to her. She told herself again, after hitting the wall at 20 miles: "I can do this."

Thap. Thap. Thap. Jacobson's feet hit the ground lightly as she heads down the hill from her house toward Magnolia Bluff, her trusty year-old golden retriever, Rudy, by her side.

Where once she considered herself almost pessimistic about life, now she's full-bore optimist. Where once she would have wanted her kids, Sam, 7, and Ellie, 4-1/2, to get into the best schools, now all she wants is for them to be happy.

"I really, truly want them to just feel joy," said Jacobson, "and to weather the ups and downs as gracefully as they can."

The white crests of the Olympic Mountains rise in choppy outline behind her as she runs past Magnolia viewpoints. A small tug pulls a big load across Elliott Bay.

Jacobson pushed hard working for newspapers on the East Coast and then to get her master's degree in public policy and administration from Columbia University.

By her early 30s, she didn't feel well. She exercised. She ate right. With two small kids and a husband that she loved, she had everything to live for. But she was tired and dizzy and her right ovary ached and felt tender to the touch.

She sensed she had cancer and told her doctor so. Her doctor felt she was depressed.

Then surgery to remove a cyst revealed she had clear cell carcinoma, which has rapid growth and aggressive metastasis, but was contained inside her ovary.

She underwent a full hysterectomy, and biopsies showed she had Stage I ovarian cancer. After years of frustration, she felt almost a sense of relief.

"I remember taking a breath for the first time when I woke up and it was like I was breathing for the first time," said Jacobson. "I know from now on I will always trust myself."

Ovarian cancer is usually caught too late. There are no reliable tests, and the symptoms are subtle.

Of a group of about 70 women being treated in her oncologist's practice, Jacobson says she was one of only three who were in Stage I, all caught almost by accident.

Search for inspiration

This disease could use a good champion.

Jacobson hardly huffs as she makes the turn of her out and back run. She was an All-American swimmer in college, but she considers herself to be in the best physical condition of her life.

In the weeks following her diagnosis in January 2002, she searched everywhere to find inspirational stories of ovarian cancer survivors. The closest she could come was Patsy Ramsey, mother of slain child beauty queen JonBenet, who was cancer-free for eight years after having Stage IV ovarian cancer.

Jacobson sought support from breast-cancer survivors. She devoured two books by cycling champion Lance Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer. She read adventure books about people who survived outdoor extremes.

How did they know what to do? Jacobson asks, light layer of sweat forming on her brow. How did they motivate themselves?

Armstrong had two messages that impressed her.

One was that after you're diagnosed, you've got to start moving and keep moving. Jacobson didn't run but she did aerobics and "cardio" kickboxing. She played up to two sets of tennis on the days she had chemotherapy, even if she felt terrible.

Armstrong also said "pain is temporary, quitting is forever." There are people in chronic pain for whom that can't apply, Jacobson says. But those words fit her as she underwent treatment and now as she trains for the 26.2-mile Seattle Marathon on Nov. 30.

Reaching milestones

As she runs, she thinks about how training for a marathon is similar to fighting cancer, with ups and downs, many unknowns and the question of whether you're going to make it.

"I think about how far I've come, and I replay small scenes in my head. The doctor telling me I had cancer and how scared I was. It really helps me sort through it and continue to come to peace with it."

The road rises in front of Jacobson, but she doesn't slow her pace.

She's been training since May through Seattle Fit, a group that includes all body types and ages as it encourages couch potatoes and others to train.

Milestones came and Jacobson passed them all. Five miles. No way could she run 10! Now she's run 21. In two weeks, she'll attempt 26.2.

She's reluctant to put herself forward as a role model. She was lucky, and she knows it. But the disease needs more people fighting for the cause, more ideas and money so there will be more survivors.

"I am extremely healthy," she says. "Who knows what's going to happen in my life, but today I'm not going to quit."

Sherry Stripling: sstripling@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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