Noblesville resident Charlene “Char” Cooper, who is battling breast cancer, came in first in her age group in last year’s Indianapolis’ OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini Marathon. She’ll be back at it this year – not missing a day of practice during chemotherapy treatments.
Charlene “Char” Cooper wears a tiny silver bar on a chain around her neck. The bar is engraved with the Roman numerals “XXVI.II.” The necklace was a gift from her daughter after Cooper completed her first Boston Marathon – 26.2 miles – three years ago.
She was in training for the 2018 Boston Marathon this year when she got the news. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I don’t think I ever asked ‘why me’ because I could just as easily have asked ‘why not me?’” said Cooper, 67. “I was reading ‘The Book of Joy’ recently and it said ‘when bad things happen you can become embittered or ennobled.’ I choose to be ennobled.”
In addition to the silver necklace, Cooper wears a baseball cap over her bald head and a pink bracelet around her wrist that reads: “#CharStrong.”
Both remind her of her breast cancer diagnosis. The bracelet was a gift from a group of female runners ranging in age from 26-67 who Cooper calls her “sweat sisters.” Having met one of the women in the airport on her way to the Boston Marathon last year, the close-knit group race together and have supported Cooper during her journey with breast cancer.
As she shows several pictures of races, Cooper laughs at one where a muscular male runner trails her petite frame. “It reminds me that no matter how big or strong cancer thinks it is, beating it depends on a magic combination of a great medical team, amazing support from my incredible family and friends, a strong faith, a positive attitude and running.”
On Saturday, May 5 Cooper will return to the starting line for what will be her 19th running of the Indianapolis Mini Marathon. She finished as the first place winner in her age group in last year’s race. This year she has decided to scale back to run the 5K due to her cancer treatment schedule and so she can conserve her energy to run a relay with her sweat sisters the following day.
Married to her husband Walt for almost 45 years, Cooper is the mother to three children – sons Walt and Mark Cooper and daughter Abby Santurbane – and the grandmother to four.
“I tell my grandkids ‘you can do hard things. Now it’s time for “Gram to do hard things,” says Cooper.
In 1995 she founded Cable Tie Express, an industrial distribution company that sells zip ties. That same year she ran her first half marathon. About nine years ago she began running competitively.
On November 30, 2017 she retired from her company – about the same time she discovered a lump in her breast. Four days after her retirement, a biopsy confirmed that she has breast cancer. Another picture serves as a memory of that news.
“My daughter, also a runner was six months pregnant. We had successfully ascended the Manitou Springs Incline in Colorado, feeling on top of the world when the day turned from one of the true highs to what could have been a very big low with my news,” said Cooper. “The news was particularly surprising because I don’t have one bit of cancer in my family, no health issues and I live a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and exercise. It just shows cancer does not discriminate.”
But the runner’s high wasn’t going to let Cooper slip into low places.
Working with a team of medical care providers that include IU Health hematology/oncology specialist Dr. Tarah Ballinger, Cooper began a full treatment plan with six rounds of chemo every three weeks.
“Char is undergoing a difficult chemotherapy regimen that contains four drugs and is given for 18 weeks prior to surgery. She made a goal to not let chemotherapy affect her running plans,” said Dr. Ballinger. “I am convinced Char’s active lifestyle, relentlessly positive attitude, and support system she has through running have allowed her to handle a very difficult chemotherapy regimen so successfully. So many of the qualities important for training are important for the cancer journey – goal-setting, determination, strength, positive thinking – and Char embodies all of that.”
In fact, she had just finished her second treatment when Cooper completed a 10K with her son and 16 days after infusion, she completed the Carmel Half Marathon placing second in her age group. Working with trainer Matt Ebersole Cooper of Personal Best Training, she has continued to run about 30 miles a week and will run both the Indianapolis Mini Marathon and the Cincinnati Flying Pig in the same weekend with her sweat sisters at her side.
Her coach’s mantra has become her mantra: “There are No Deals, Run the Miles – or with Cancer, Power Through the Treatments.”
She was sidelined from this year’s Boston Marathon due to travel restrictions related to her treatment. And she’s counting down the days she gets the green light to make the trek to Colorado to see her newest grandbaby. Other than that, she says her running goals are simple – she wants to run the 2019 New York City Marathon cancer free and return to the Boston Marathon line up in 2020 and 2021.
“My coach always says ‘the hard things we choose to do (like running) make most things seem easy and the impossible things (like beating cancer) possible.’ It’s true, this has been a curve ball but there has also been a lot of good that has come out of it. I tell my family and friends to hold tight to those they love, share kindness, forgiveness and goodness with others, trust in God and celebrate each mile of life’s journey.”
— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.