Coast to Coast for Cancer

I ran across the country to support a foundation I wish I had known about when I received my Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis at age 17.

By: Greta Ohanian ’20, as told to Meghan Kita  Wednesday, November 30, 2022 02:49 PM

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Greta Ohanian ’20 runs in Utah’s Capital Reef National Park.

This summer, Greta Ohanian ’20 completed the Ulman 4K for Cancer fundraising relay across the country with a team of six other people. The group began in Baltimore, the home of the Ulman Foundation, a nonprofit that supports young adults with cancer, and finished in San Francisco. Each runner completed six to 16 miles per day over the course of 49 days. A cancer survivor herself, Ohanian explains what the journey meant to her.

I found out about the run through an ad on Facebook. I hadn’t heard about the Ulman Foundation before, and when I looked them up, I was so impressed. A lot of cancer organizations are geared towards either pediatric or adult patients; Ulman helps the middle ground.

When I saw the ad, I thought, “This was made for me. There’s the cancer, and then there’s the running.” I was diagnosed when I was 17, the fall of my senior year of high school. I was just finishing up my cross country season, and I had been running pretty slow. When my mom found lumps on my neck that fall I thought she was making a big deal about nothing — but instead it turned out to be cancer. 

I was in treatment from late fall into early spring. I went into survival mode. I focused on the things that were still important to me — school, friends, extracurriculars — because that’s what I knew. It didn’t feel natural to switch off from those things and say, “I’m sick. Now I’m a cancer patient.”

Afterwards, I was so eager to start getting my energy back, but it took a long time for my body to recover. When I saw the ad for this run, right after I had started college, I was still getting back into running. I registered in the fall of 2019 to do the run in 2020, but then COVID happened. I ran it virtually, logging the mileage near my home. I started an Instagram account, @coast2coast4cancer, to share my progress.

Every day of the 4K you dedicate your run to someone who’s gone through cancer. I remember at the beginning thinking, “How am I going to come up with so many people?” I asked teammates and people from my own life and soon I had more names than days. That’s what made the virtual 4K impactful for me and is one of the main reasons I came back to do the run in 2022. 

I didn’t know my team beforehand. People would ask my mom, “You’re gonna let her run with all these strangers?” But you form a very special bond with people who are also down to do the same crazy thing that you are. We became really close. There was one other survivor on my team, and we bonded a lot. On one run, we talked about our experiences with treatment and life after. It was one of the most raw conversations I’ve had about cancer since I’ve had it, which goes to show how little I have those conversations. It’s hard to find people who get it. 

I loved getting to see so many places and realizing how different parts of the country are. For example, the Midwest is so different from where I live, in Long Island. When we got to Colorado, everyone was super excited to start seeing more than just open fields. We ran through Rocky Mountain National Park, which was one of my favorite days on the trip but also one of the toughest. We ran on Trail Ridge Road, which is at very high altitude with a lot of elevation gain. The very top was a tundra. The altitude sickness made things tough, but I took a lot of breaks and tried my best. It was also cool to go into Utah and see red rocks everywhere. I really liked seeing the different landscapes. The best day, however, was when we crossed into San Francisco and ran into the Pacific Ocean. Finally reaching the West Coast finish line after doing 4K for two years is a memory I will always hold close to my heart. 

 After 4K finished, I wanted to see how else I could help the young adult cancer community. Ulman offers a program in multiple cities called Cancer to 5K to help survivors train for an upcoming race, and luckily there is one in New York City this fall that I am able to participate in. It’s a space for survivors to learn how to get back into physical activity while bonding with people who have also gone through cancer. After treatment, I struggled to get back into running and would’ve loved to have something like this near me. I’m really excited that I get to help other cancer survivors in this way.