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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Jean Dryer of Brookline is battling cancer and will run in Monday's Boston Marathon.
  • Jean Dreyer, her husband, Mike, and their children at the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation 5K Race for Research in Boston in September, 2010.

    Dreyer was undergoing chemotherapy when she ran the race.
    Photo Courtesy the Dreyer Family.

  • Suzi Larson, of Pelham, and Jean Dreyer, of Brookline, following a training run. The lifelong friends will run the Boston Marathon on Monday, in part to raise money for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
    Photo Courtesy Jean Dreyer
Sunday, April 15, 2012

Despite rare blood cancer, Brookline woman will run Boston Marathon after 20-year hiatus

BROOKLINE – Jean Dreyer hears the questions from friends when she talks of her intention to run her first Boston Marathon since 1992 and her fourth marathon overall.

Why undergo the countless hours of training? Why undertake this challenge at age 41, a little more than a year removed from receiving massive doses of chemotherapy to contain a painful, incurable blood cancer?

Why put yourself through this grueling race?

“Because I can,” answers Dreyer, who Monday morning will line up on East Main Street in Hopkinton, Mass., with thousands of others for the start of the 26.2 mile run.

This isn’t George Mallory bravado. It’s an honest assessment of a woman not deluding herself about what her future may hold, but still fighting to hang on to her present health and her physically fit past.

“Running makes me feel strong. It makes me feel strong mentally and physically,” said Dreyer, a mother of two sets of twins.

She was diagnosed two years ago with multiple myeloma, a blood plasma cancer with one of the worst survival rates of any cancer.

The median survival rate is three to four years with conventional treatment after a person is diagnosed. With advanced treatment, the median life expectancy is extended to five to seven years, sometimes longer.

By running the marathon, Dreyer also is raising money for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, an organization she says has given her support and hope.

“When I was first diagnosed, I never thought I’d ever run again. I never thought I’d see that positive day,” she said.

Watching their mother run is great for her children, Cameron and Mitchell, 11, and Sarah and Emily, 9, Dreyer said.

“They’ve seen me at my weakest point. Then they’ve seen me cross the finish line,” she said.

It’s also uplifting for her husband, Mike, her parents and her friends.

“They know no matter what, I’m going to do it,” Dreyer said.

The idea of running a marathon presented itself a little at a time and through the encouragement of lifelong friend Suzi Larson of Pelham.

Dreyer and Larson ran two marathons together, the Boston Marathon in 1992 and the Rhode Island Marathon in 1993.

That was the extent of Dreyer’s long-distance running until recently. In the ensuing years, she stayed fit through shorter runs, kick-boxing classes and other activities.

Then, in 2009, the unthinkable happened.

A lump developed on her breastbone. The doctors suspected a cyst and had it removed and biopsied. Dreyer was told the results came back benign.

A year later, however, the lump returned. Then, playing catch with a medicine ball at a gym, she was hit in the chest.

“It pretty much knocked me out. It was the worst pain I ever felt,” Dreyer said.

The ball had cracked her weakened sternum. A biopsy of the lump showed a malignancy. A subsequent bone marrow sample confirmed her disease.

Multiple myeloma is cancer of blood plasma. The lump was a plasmacytosis, a concentration of plasma cells that sometimes accompanies multiple myeloma.

Its presence can be fortunate, leading to earlier diagnosis, Dreyer said.

The disease often is misdiagnosed until its symptoms – fatigue, bone pain and weakness, and kidney failure – have progressed, she said.

Everything she read about the cancer seemed bleak and puzzling, Dreyer said.

Information she read suggested the disease usually strikes people in their 70s, and most often African-Americans, she said.

But online, Dreyer found other young adults shared their experiences.

“It seems there are a lot of athletic people in their 40s getting this disease,” she said.

Then Dreyer discovered the Connecticut-based Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, which offered a ray of hope. Its founder has survived the disease for 15 years, Dreyer said.

Dreyer underwent massive doses of chemotherapy from July to October 2010, designed to knock the presence of the cancer down to near zero. However, it also destroyed her immune system. Following the chemotherapy, she spent three weeks hospitalized, much of it in a sterile “bubble” until a transplant of her own stem cells, which had been harvested in advance, helped restore her ability to fight off infection.

The treatment has the effect of stalling the cancer’s advance for up to four years, Dreyer said.

Recovery was slow. Dreyer learned to measure the small successes: A walk to the mailbox, and then later, a walk up and down her street. Running a marathon seemed out of the question.

Larson, who Dreyer has known since age 4, said she was going to run the 5K Multiple Myeloma Foundation Race for Research in Boston in September 2010. Larson organized a 70-member team of runners to raise money.

“I’m very, very blessed to have her as a friend,” Dreyer said.

To Larson’s surprise, Dreyer joined her for the run, even though she was undergoing chemotherapy at the time. Dreyer ran the 5K race again the following September and trained to run the Bay State Marathon in Lowell, Mass., in October.

However, Larson was injured and couldn’t run. Dreyer found the marathon lonely without her friend beside her, and she didn’t finish as strongly as she had hoped, she said. After crossing the finish line, Dreyer had to receive fluids intravenously in the medical tent, she said.

Dreyer hopes for a better finish Monday, when she’ll again run with Larson. Dreyer admits she felt better some months ago after training, and more fatigue seems to be settling in lately following her daily runs.

Dreyer’s family will cheer her on at the 25th mile marker, where the MMRF has a presence.

She also is realistic about her future.

“This could be my last distance run,” Dreyer said.

She doesn’t know if she’ll have the same strength following another round of intensive chemotherapy and stem cell treatment when the cancer returns.

That’s the No. 1 reason why she’s running this marathon, Dreyer said.

Not to run would be to succumb to the disease, to submit to changing her lifestyle permanently, she said.

“Who wants to do that?” Dreyer said.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or