Months after finishing chemotherapy, woman set to run her second Boston Marathon

BOSTON — Almost four years ago, Erin Morrissey got some incredible news -- which is not to say she got good news.

For months, the then 21-year-old had been experiencing abdominal pain.

“A lot of the things I was experiencing were easily dismissed -- or easily attributable to other things. I just moved to Boston, started a new job,” Morrissey said. “But I just knew things weren’t quite right for me.”

Fortunately, Morrissey’s new job was at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she worked as a clinical researcher. Also fortunate, she found doctors there who took her complaints seriously enough to perform diagnostic tests.

“As soon as we got that imaging, everyone was kind of on board to know, ‘Okay, there is something going on here,’” said Morrissey.

That something was a cancer so rare that the American Cancer Society estimates just 200 Americans a year get a similar diagnosis: adrenal cancer -- a malignant tumor affecting one of the glands that sit above each kidney.

“It’s literally about one in a million people that get it,” said Dr. Philip Saylor, an oncologist at the Mass General Hospital Cancer Center, and one of the doctors who wound up treating Morrissey. “And when we encounter it, it’s a big deal.”

It’s a big deal because adrenal cancer is usually aggressive.

“The crucial part is finding the cancer at the right moment when it’s just in the one place,” said Saylor. “That’s always the very best scenario.”

But even that scenario guarantees nothing. The five-year survival rate for localized adrenal cancer is around 70%. If it metastasizes, the outlook is significantly more grim.

Morrissey’s cancer had not spread beyond her adrenal gland. But because of its size, she said it was graded as Stage 2. Initially, she was shocked.

“But I’m someone who likes to get things done and always have a plan,” Morrissey said. “So I was into ‘What are we going to do about it?’”

What doctors can do for adrenal cancer is remove the affected gland -- then follow it up with a course of radiation and chemotherapy.

Morrissey underwent all those therapies. One thing that helped get her through: running.

“There were so many aspects of my life that I didn’t have control over but running was one that I could,” she said.

Morrissey, a former college lacrosse player, likes to test her limits. And so, just months after finishing her chemotherapy, she’s running her second Boston Marathon next week.

“At the very least, I won’t be taking ten pills the morning of the race,” she said. “I’ll be taking maybe four or five.”

Those pills include a corticosteroid, something her remaining adrenal gland would normally secrete -- and may secrete again, once it recovers from the chemotherapy.

What is Morrissey’s goal in the race?

“That I’ll finish and I’ll be proud of myself for doing so,” she said. “I’m not trying to go for an Olympic record. It’s just about finishing for me.”

It’s also about fundraising. Morrissey is part of the MGH team raising funds for the Pediatric Cancer Clinic at the hospital.

Morrissey doesn’t know how the race will go -- but she does know this: “I would say if I could go back and do it all over again, I would absolutely not have cancer,” she said. “Ten times out of ten, I would not have chosen this.”

But Morrissey said having cancer has given her perspective -- and a mission.

“I do hope to pursue a career in medicine,” she said.

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