It is more than just a race; St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend is the largest single-day fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Runners from all over come together to be part of something bigger and make a difference in the lives of children with cancer.
For some participants, it’s even more meaningful. For three-time cancer survivor and former St. Jude patient Hillary Husband, this race is a homecoming.
Hillary, now 27, was 14 the first time she was diagnosed with cancer. A native of southwest Louisiana, she was a healthy competitive dancer— which made her diagnosis even more shocking. After blacking out at a dance audition, she was taken to the ER and diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia that night.
With her world turned upside down, she was on a plane to Memphis the next day to receive treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Upon arrival, she was told that she had the second highest white blood cell count they’d ever seen.
As strong as they come, Hillary stayed on her high school dance team and continued training with them while undergoing treatment. “It was a struggle to keep dancing,” Hillary says. “But St. Jude worked with me to keep me moving. Being active gave me something to get out of bed for.”
After 33 months of treatment, she was back at high school full time for her spring semester, where she eventually graduated as the valedictorian. Inspired by her time at St. Jude, she went on to study chemistry at a small liberal arts college in Louisiana, where she also joined the dance team.
However, in October 2011, just two months into her freshman year of college, Hillary started gaining weight and became short of breath. After being misdiagnosed with pneumonia, she was eventually placed into a medically induced coma. When she woke up nine days later, she was at St. Jude and was diagnosed with T-cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Thanks to the dedication and hard work of the doctors at St. Jude, Hillary was able to return to school in the fall the following year and rejoin the dance team. However, 2013 was another challenging year when she was diagnosed with cancer a third time: a fast, aggressive form of T-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Since chemo wasn’t able to keep the cancer away, Hillary had to undergo a bone marrow transplant at the age of 20. She was in the hospital for 42 days recovering from the intensive surgery—but even then, she never stopped moving.
“I stayed active on the Wii, and then I started walking laps on the floor so that I could walk a mile every day,” she says. Her doctor at the time bet her that she couldn’t walk a marathon while in recovery. Naturally a competitor, she did just that.
“The day I walked my last mile of the marathon, the nurses who had taken care of me since I was 14 set up a finish line to cheer me on,” Hillary says. “That was the day I was discharged; I’ve been in remission for seven years now.”
While Hillary was recovering from surgery, she dreamt of being able to run without getting tired. Since 2014, she’s participated in St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, and when the event went virtual due to COVID-19, she was one of the first participants to sign up. “I don’t care if it’s virtual. It’s a nod to when I was in the hospital wishing I was healthy enough to run a mile.”
Although Hillary will be participating from Louisiana this year, it remains a meaningful experience. She signed up for the Virtual 4-Race Challenge and will run a 5K, 10K, and half marathon in the weeks leading up to the event. It culminates with the full marathon on Dec. 5, which Hillary plans to walk. “It’s an ode to when I walked 26.2 miles when recovering from my bone marrow transplant,” she says. “I lost so many friends who never had the chance to get well enough to run. I dedicate every mile to them.”
To sign up for the 2020 St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend Virtual Experience Presented by Juice Plus+, visit Stjude.org/marathon. Register by October 16 to receive a commemorative race number, long-sleeve tech shirt, and finisher medal before race day on Saturday, December 5.
By Lucy Harrison. Photo by Tindall Stephens.