This New Bedford woman survived cancer. Now she's about to be a Six-Star marathon finisher

NEW BEDFORD — Thirty-six-year-old New Bedford resident and soon-to-be Abbott World Marathon Majors Six-Star Finisher Janytzabell (Jany) Rodriguez-Ramos still remembers the day she went to a doctor's appointment, and didn't come home.

"I remember I was at the doctor's office and I was not feeling that well, and I remember being rushed from there to the hospital; and from there I just spent so much time in the hospital," Rodriguez-Ramos said.

She was 1 year old.

Now, as a mental health professional, the childhood cancer survivor and "Make-a-Wish kid" understands how memories from so far back can remain so easily recalled.

"The way that trauma works, I actually do remember some things from way back then," Rodriguez-Ramos said as she described vivid memories of lying on a brown bed in a white room, surrounded by cabinets, hooked up to an IV bag as she received chemotherapy at Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence.

At the urging of her mother, who'd grown suspicious of certain ongoing physical ailments, Rodriguez-Ramos says extensive testing resulted in a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia and given a 22% chance of survival.

"My mother got kind of adamant with the doctor so he ran the tests and they discovered it had actually spread to my entire body," she said.

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As she grew up in cancer treatment, at one point Rodriguez-Ramos says family members realized she needed a break and thought a trip to Disney World was just the thing to bring her some semblance of childhood fun. "I want to say I was about 3," she said. "My parents had used all of their savings for it."

But unfortunately Rodriguez-Ramos wouldn't even make it past the gates of a Disney park before a medical emergency resulted a crushing defeat of those efforts, as well as additional, unplanned expenses. "I ended up with a fever-induced seizure as we were about to enter," she said. "So instead of going to Disney I got to go to a Florida hospital where I didn't know anybody.

"My brother was about 1, and they (my parents) had it rough going to get his formula and diapers during that time while I was hospitalized."

However, at age 5, the Make-a-Wish Foundation helped to restore Rodriguez-Ramos' and her family's faith in an eventual life of normalcy, sending them back to Florida for a second chance at their dream vacation. This time, they found success.

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"I was mesmerized," Rodriguez-Ramos said of her memories from that trip. "I remember the rental they had us stay in had a fridge packed with Lunchables and I thought that I was in heaven. I also remember having breakfast with the characters with a piano that played itself and I thought it was magic."

Cancer-free — but not without a price

The Florida trip wasn't the only good thing that happened when Rodriguez-Ramos was 5 — it was also the year doctors pronounced her cancer-free. But in another five years, the physical toll of spending the majority of her life up to then under harsh cancer treatments would become apparent.

"When I was 10 years old I started getting really sharp pains and having similar symptoms, and what they discovered was the cancer, thankfully, hadn't come back, but all the treatments I had broke down my stomach lining," she said. "So as much as I love pasta and stuff, I can't have too much at once because my stomach will automatically swell and be in a lot of pain."

The effects of treatment also impact her running — something she's grown very passionate about. "I notice sometimes when I run, I don't do well if it's too hot," she said. "If I spend too much time in the heat, I end up with a headache and sometimes even a fever."

A running start to giving back

As a mental health professional, Rodriguez-Ramos attributes her career choice to her experiences growing up. She currently works at Hayden-McFadden Elementary School as an adjustment counselor for New Bedford Public Schools. "I feel like having the diagnosis that I had, going through what I went through, is what pushed me to want to be in a helping field," she said. "When I get those little bits of progress with someone I'm working with, I feel like I've accomplished so much."

Over the time while she was busy developing her career in helping people, Rodriguez-Ramos was also developing her love of running — something that is now giving her a another way to give back. Eventually she would sign up for her first official foot race, the New Bedford Half Marathon — an annual event she still considers one of her favorites even now after running over 30 marathons in 11 states and two countries. Those include four of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors: the Boston, Chicago, New York City and Tokyo marathons. After next Sunday, Oct. 2, she'll have completed the London and Berlin marathons, earning her the prestigious title of Six Star Finisher. She will be one of fewer than 650 American women, and 1,500 total Americans to do so, according to a press release.

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"They're the 'Big Six' — pretty much the cream of the crop of marathons, so it's a very big deal in the running community," Rodriguez-Ramos said.

But it's not all about the prestige, as she runs to raise money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation UK in hopes it will contribute to another child being afforded an experience like she once had. "I’ve always had it as a goal of mine to give back to an organization that gave me some hope and life back. ... Having been someone who experienced Make-a-Wish, it makes such an impact on not only the kid who’s going through such a hard time, but also on the family," she said, noting the long days in hospital waiting rooms and ongoing stresses her parents and younger brother endured. "It means so much just to have something to look forward to."

So far, Rodriguez-Ramos has reached her fundraising goal of 2,500 Great Britain pounds — about $3,500 in U.S. dollars. She credits her friends from the Greater New Bedford Track Club and their idea to throw her a surprise birthday party/fundraiser event earlier this month for raising a large portion of the money. With plans to get married to fiancée A.J. Nystrom coming up in May, Rodriguez-Ramos was especially thankful for the help. "I'm horrible at asking people for money or help for stuff like this so they knew it was stressing me out. I was so thankful," she said. "I really didn't want it to come out of my wedding funds."

Off to the races

Rodriguez-Ramos flew out to run the BMW Berlin Marathon on Sunday, Sept. 25, to be followed by the London Marathon Oct. 2. While her first priority is getting sufficient rest and staying in top running shape, she's worked in some sight-seeing and exploring into the itinerary on her and her fiancée's trip.

"Not the pace I was going for but I'm happy with it," she said from Berlin on Sunday after the marathon there, reporting her race time of three hours, 35 minutes.

"We'll be in Berlin till Monday, so in between I’ll be doing some walking to keep my legs in shape, and I actually convinced my fiancée to make a quick stop at Disney Paris, so we'll be there for two-three days before we go to London.

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"I've never been to Europe so I'm so emotional in so many ways; emotional, anxious — all of the above."

While the tribulations of her early years remain with her both physically and emotionally, Rodriguez-Ramos says she doesn't regret any of it, drawing parallels between the strength she found within herself to persevere through cancer, and the strength she uses to get through a race.

"People always say, oh I’m so sorry you went through that, and I say you know what? I’m not sorry. It made me the person that I am, it gave me the strength and determination that I have to not give up, and I feel like with running, it also does the same thing, so it kind of reinforces that," she said.

Rodriguez-Ramos' fundraising channel remains open to additional donations. To make one, click here.

This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: New Bedford marathon runner to achieve 'SIx-Star Finisher' status