The first time Ann Marie Tarasovitch ran a 5K, in her 30s, she felt nervous. Her young son gave her some perspective.
“He goes, ‘Mom, what’s the worst thing that can happen?’” Ann Marie recalls. “‘You fall down, you die, you go to heaven. It’s a win-win.’”
Many years have passed since Ann Marie received that bit of childhood wisdom. However, it still crosses her mind at every race starting line.
Ann Marie received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) – an incurable, unpredictable neurological disease – in her mid-40s. Months before her 50th birthday, she learned she had another devastating disease: breast cancer.
She handled both diseases the way she handles her races: one step at a time.
Ann Marie survived the breast cancer and manages her multiple sclerosis not only with medication but with another important treatment: exercise.
In the decade since her MS diagnosis, Ann Marie has completed five half-marathons, four obstacle races, three triathlons, and much more. She does it all knowing she has an unknown future because of the MS. And that’s why she continues to do it.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” she asks. “Today, I’m standing. Today, I can run. Tomorrow, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what’s in my future, but today I’m good.”
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‘I Promise You: I’ll be The Healthiest Sick Person I Can Be’
Ann Marie felt healthy into her mid-40s. Outside of her father, who battled stage IV cancer for years, she didn’t have a long family history of disease. She took up running in her 30s after seeing a friend run a 10K race. The Erie native also stayed active at her local YMCA.
But as she got further into her 40s, she began noticing some health problems – “weird little things,” she calls them.
“I would drop things,” she says. “And then I started getting migraines, and then I got mono. I mean, who gets mono? I was over 40, and I got mono, and then I got shingles.”
Those problems would come and go, and so would others: numbness in her limbs, and balance issues. Finally, one day, one of her pupils was dilated more than the other – causing her doctor to order an MRI.
After multiple MRIs, blood work, and a spinal tap, Ann Marie got her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
Multiple sclerosis, an incurable neurological disease that affects about 1 million Americans, affects a person’s central nervous system. It interferes with signals between the brain and spinal cord and the rest of the body.
MS can cause problems with vision, balance, coordination, and more. The disease can be hard to diagnose because no single test can confirm it and some people experience symptoms on and off. It also progresses differently depending on type: Some people can manage it more easily, but it can cause long-term disability in others.
“That’s kind of the scary thing when people hear they have multiple sclerosis,” says Rock Heyman, MD, associate professor and chief of the Division of Neuroimmunology and Multiple Sclerosis in the Department of Neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Some people even kind of presume that means they’re going to end up in a wheelchair. With modern therapies, we can control it better.”
Ann Marie’s diagnosis left her in disbelief.
“I remember walking up the driveway (later that day),” she says. “My husband was in the garage working, and I came home and said, ‘Scott, I’ve got to tell you something. The doctor called me and said I have MS.’ My husband’s wonderful and said, ‘Honey, we’re going to get through this.’”
I just said to him, ‘I promise you: I’ll be the healthiest sick person I can be.’”
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‘This Is Where I Put My Money Where My Mouth Is’
Ann Marie was training to run a 10K before learning she had MS. After her diagnosis, she called her doctor to see if she still could go through with it.
“She said, ‘Don’t stop moving. Keep moving,’” Ann Marie says.
That was all Ann Marie needed to hear. She ran that 10 K “in snowy, rainy, terrible conditions,” and completed it.
“That was a big day for me,” she says now, because it showed her that she could stay active even with MS.
In fact, regular exercise or physical activity can help some people with MS manage their symptoms, making it especially important.
“It seems to moderate the abnormal disease activity, help with quality of life, strength, bone density – you name it,” Dr. Heyman says. “So many good things can happen.”
In addition to running races and getting regular exercise at the YMCA, Ann Marie began eating healthier. Everything seemed to be working: She was managing her symptoms.
A few years later, and a few months before her 50th birthday, Ann Marie pulled a muscle in her chest. And when she felt the muscle, she also felt a lump.
It turned out to be breast cancer.
“My tumor was small, but it was very close to my chest wall,” Ann Marie says. “I just remember my husband sitting in the backyard and I said to him, ‘This is where I put my money where my mouth is.’
“I always say, ‘God, whatever you give me, you’ll get me through this. Please guide me and let me see everything you put in front of me to help me along this journey.’”
A month after her breast cancer diagnosis, Ann Marie underwent a double mastectomy. After that, she began chemotherapy and radiation.
The chemotherapy began around the same time as Ann Marie’s 50th birthday. The treatments had some negative side effects. She couldn’t work full-time in her job as a hairdresser because the chemotherapy drugs caused her to feel weaker. They also caused her to lose her hair, another low point.
“It was really rough,” she says. “There were some days that I was so sick, it was hard to get up. But luckily, I handled it. After my second treatment, my hair started falling out. I knew that day was coming. I did not look forward to that.”
Ann Marie’s family, including her husband and two sons, and friends, including a large group at the YMCA, kept her positive. After she lost her hair, she began wearing bandanas to her YMCA workouts. The rest of the group began wearing pink bandanas on Fridays to show support.
Her family provided the same kind of strength. On her 50th birthday, her husband gave her a card that showed people kayaking. The message? That even with MS and breast cancer, Ann Marie still would find a way to stay active and get through it.
“I can’t believe how God has blessed me with all these people and all these friends and such support,” she says.
‘I’m Not Done Yet. I’m Still Going.’
Ann Marie wanted to tackle one of her “bucket list” items after she completed radiation for her breast cancer in 2014: a half marathon.
“I said: ‘I’d love to try and do it before I hit 51,’” she says.
And so a group of five or six of her friends from the YMCA got together to run a half marathon. The race day happened almost a year after Ann Marie’s double mastectomy.
“It was an unbelievable day,” Ann Marie says. “Just to cross that finish line and say, ‘I’m not done yet. I’m still going,’ I couldn’t believe I crossed the line. My friends were with me. My family was waiting for me at the end. My boys were so proud. I mean, it was amazing.”
Ann Marie had breast reconstruction surgery in the fall of 2014, then three more procedures after that. The surgeries meant she couldn’t follow her normal exercise routine, so she started working out in the pool more. Then, when she came down with two bulging discs in her back after her fourth surgery, the pool again provided her an exercise outlet.
Ann Marie wasn’t an avid swimmer before that time, but she improved enough to try some new challenges. First came a 1-mile open-water swim across Presque Isle Bay. Then came a sprint triathlon: swimming, biking, and running. And then another half marathon.
“All these things that you think about, especially in your 50s, people have midlife crises and stuff,” Ann Marie says. “I said, ‘What am I waiting for to try these different things? I’ve got to go out of my comfort zone. It’s now or never.’
Ann Marie and Scott are a foster family for Dale, an adult from the Barber National Institute for people with autism, intellectual disabilities, and behavioral challenges. One of the institute’s fundraisers is the “Beast on the Bay,” a 10-mile obstacle course. Ann Marie and her friends put a team together and raced in that, too.
Her competition count since age 50? Five half marathons, four “Beast on the Bay” races, three sprint triathlons, two bay swims, a duathlon, and countless fun runs. She also snowshoes and kayaks.
“I feel like God gave me such a gift by keeping me healthy that I just wanted to be a good steward of my body and have fun with it and be healthy,” she says.
‘If I Can Do It, You Can Do It’
Ann Marie still faces medical obstacles. She broke her wrist once after slipping and falling on ice, partially caused by lowered calcium levels from one of her cancer medications. Recently, she suffered a stress fracture in her foot.
Some days, her multiple sclerosis can give her trouble. She deals with heat sensitivity, a frequent symptom of MS. She also suffers from fatigue.
She deals with those problems by adapting. Because of the heat sensitivity, she doesn’t run half marathons in the summer. She scales back her workouts if she’s feeling fatigued.
“It was hard for me to listen to my body,” Ann Marie says. “I had to learn to listen to my body and not feel guilty about not being able to do the things that I want to do that day, and to celebrate the things that I could do.”
What helps Ann Marie is her support system: her family and her friends from the Y, whose ages range from the 30s to the 60s.
“We’re all of every shape, and size, and age,” she says. “It’s a really unique group. And so when I had different lows in my life, they were there. All these activities that I’ve done, I’ve done either with the whole group or part of the group.”
Ann Marie didn’t know anyone in the group before getting MS or breast cancer. Now, they’ve become part of her family. On the five-year anniversary of her mastectomy, she arrived at the YMCA to find that the group was wearing pink T-shirts that said, “Stronger with every mile.”
Ann Marie finds herself paying that kindness forward now. She’s become a resource for other people with MS, breast cancer, or other problems. She talks to people going through tough times and shares her story.
She has one message for them: Keep going.
“I just say, ‘You can do anything you want,’” she says. “If God brings you to it, he can get you through it. Not that I’m anything special or anything, but I always say, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’”
The UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 60 locations throughout western Pennsylvania and Ohio, with more than 200 oncologists. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment.