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Mom runs marathon to ‘take power back’ from cancer during double mastectomy and hysterectomy

Kristina Coccoluto, 38, didn’t want her kids to spend their lives worrying about her health, so she underwent surgery to lower her cancer risk. Running gave her the strength to thrive.

Kristina Coccoluto, 38, has spent her life watching the women in her family be diagnosed with cancer. One aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer when Coccoluto was 7 and died of breast and ovarian cancer when Coccoluto was 20.

Her mother has had breast cancer twice, and another aunt has had it as well. Coccoluto herself had melanoma, which may be linked with breast cancer, when she was 20.

At age 25, genetic testing showed that she had a mutation in the BRCA gene that puts her at much higher risk than average for breast and ovarian cancer. She says her lifetime risk of breast cancer was 87%, and of ovarian cancer was 60%.

“I was not really open to the idea of losing my breasts at 25. I thought, ‘This is unbelievable. I just got breasts. I can’t believe we’re talking about removing them’,” she says.

She chose surveillance — monitoring her breasts carefully for any suspicious signs. And she kept living her life. She got married at age 26 and had her first of three children at age 27.

Coccoluto's mother and two aunts were all diagnosed with breast cancer.
Coccoluto's mother and two aunts were all diagnosed with breast cancer. Courtesy Kristina Coccoluto

Finding a breast lump jolted her into action

I didn’t want my daughter to grow up fearing for my health the way I feared for my mom’s health.

Kristina Coccoluto

She lived a healthy lifestyle — green juices, organic food and working out all the time. But at age 29, she found a lump in her breast. “It was benign, but I had to wait ten days before I got my results. In that waiting period, my life flashed before my eyes. It really showed me that you can’t diet and exercise this risk away. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up fearing for my health the way I feared for my mom’s health,” she says.

Coccoluto realized she was empowered to make a difference in her health, but it would require a big sacrifice. She decided to have a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer.

“With a mastectomy, you’re removing part of your femininity. You’re removing part of your sexual self. You’re removing the ability to breastfeed. I had a lot of questions. Would I look in the mirror, accept myself again and have self-love? I didn’t know if I was making the right choice, but I knew it was my turn to outpace this,” she says.

As she scheduled her mastectomy, she knew she needed to find a way to cope. Without having run much more than three miles before in her life, she decided to run the 2015 Chicago Marathon, raising money for Bright Pink.

Running to raise money for breast and ovarian cancer research helped Coccoluto feel a sense of control when cancer left her feeling powerless.
Running to raise money for breast and ovarian cancer research helped Coccoluto feel a sense of control when cancer left her feeling powerless.Courtesy Kristina Coccoluto

Cancer leaves you feeling powerless. I felt like I had a ticking time bomb in my body. Running gave me that feeling of getting back to myself.

KRISTINA COCCOLUTO

Why she wanted to run a marathon

“Nobody really understands what it’s like to live with a high risk and not know where to put your energy. If you don’t take control of something that feels so out of control, it can feel very overwhelming,” she says. “Cancer leaves you feeling powerless. I felt like I had a ticking time bomb in my body. Running gave me that feeling of getting back to myself.”

“After I crossed that finish line, I had another finish line waiting for me. Four days after my 30th birthday, I had my breasts removed,” she says. “I’ve never felt stronger in my life. It was one of those moments where I felt like my whole life was changing. I was about to really get to know who I really am and fall in love with the new me.”

Coccoluto decided to have a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer.
Coccoluto decided to have a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast cancer.Courtesy Kristina Coccoluto

Having baby #2 was the motivation for marathon #2

A year later, her second child, another daughter, was born. “It was like a new beginning all over again. So, I decided I would run another race,” she says. She signed up for the 2018 New York Marathon, running for Bright Pink again.

“After that, I decided I was going to run all the world majors — London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, Boston and Tokyo,” she says.

Coccoluto lives outside of Boston and wanted to save that marathon for last. But life had other plans. One of her two sisters, Vanessa Federico, also tested positive for the BRCA genetic mutation. Federico wanted to run the Boston Marathon before her own double mastectomy.

Looking to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer, Coccoluto had already scheduled a complete hysterectomy for October 2022, and didn’t think she would be able to train for that marathon. But she counted out the weeks, and she had exactly enough time — eight weeks to recover from surgery and 20 weeks to train for the marathon. She signed up, raising money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

When a knee injury set her back, Coccoluto used Fluid Running water workouts to train for the Boston Marathon.
When a knee injury set her back, Coccoluto used Fluid Running water workouts to train for the Boston Marathon.Courtesy Kristina Coccoluto

Running in water helped her overcome knee injury

As Coccoluto was training for the Boston Marathon, an injury set her back. Her surgery had weakened her hips, which led to injuries in her knees.

Still, she was committed to finishing the race. She had raised over $30,000 and shared her story on local television. People were counting on her. Plus, Dana-Farber had paired her with a young cancer patient, 7-year-old Zoey, who would be cheering for her at Mile 17. “I couldn’t bear the thought of not getting to her. I had to show up for her,” she says.

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute paired Cocculoto with a young cancer patient, Zoey, who cheered her on from the sidelines during the Boston Marathon.
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute paired Cocculoto with a young cancer patient, Zoey, who cheered her on from the sidelines during the Boston Marathon.Courtesy Kristina Coccoluto

A coach suggested she try Fluid Running, a deep-water running program where the resistance of the water helps you build strength and avoid injury. Cocculoto decided to try it.

“The pain I had running on land was so bad, there was no amount of determination that would get me through it. I needed something else to get me there, and it was Fluid Running,” she says.

She did all her training in the pool at her local YMCA using running workouts on the Fluid Running app. “I had to have faith that whatever I was doing in the water would translate to land,” she says. “I was trusting that these pool workouts would get me to the finish line.”

Her sister Stephanie Bramante joined her and Federico in the marathon. “As soon as the race started, I was crying. I had been dreaming of running the Boston Marathon since I was 17,” she says. With her sisters’ support, she made it to greet Zoey, and then across the finish line.

 Cocculoto ran the Boston Marathon with her two sisters.
Cocculoto ran the Boston Marathon with her two sisters.Courtesy Kristina Coccoluto

How chasing big fitness goals has made a difference in her life

“I know I can live the kind of life I thought I was going to have before. I took a leap of faith in myself, pushed myself and believed in myself,” she says. “My biggest obstacles have become my biggest adventures.”

Next up is her fourth marathon, the Berlin Marathon in September, which she’s running to support breast cancer research at Dana-Farber. Coccoluto plans to use a mix of Fluid Running and land training for that race.

My goal is to keep running until, someday, my kids don’t have to remove body parts in order to survive.

KRISTINA COCCOLUTO

Her children won’t be tested for the genetic mutation that could put them at higher risk of cancer until they’re adults. Coccoluto puts her fundraising efforts into research in the hope that her children will have better options: “My goal is to keep running until, someday, my kids don’t have to remove body parts in order to survive. I’ll run a zillion races if that’s what it takes.”

Coccoluto's children were the motivation behind her taking her health into her own hands, undergoing a double mastectomy and hysterectomy.
Coccoluto's children were the motivation behind her taking her health into her own hands, undergoing a double mastectomy and hysterectomy. Courtesy Kristina Coccoluto