Running Helps Alumna Beat Life’s Challenges

By Grant Martin

jennifer_andress2UAB alumna Jennifer Andress was one of seven cancer survivors featured on the cover of Runner's World magazine in July 2011.The cover of Runner’s World magazine typically shows professional models or professional athletes. Jennifer Andress, a 42-year-old mother of two, is neither of those, yet the UAB alumna and runner appeared on newsstands this summer after winning the race of her life—against cancer.

Andress, a 2001 graduate of UAB’s Master of Business Administration program, is one of seven people featured on eight different versions of RW’s July issue. Each of the cover models, who include cyclist Lance Armstrong and Survivor champion Ethan Zohn, are cancer survivors as well as accomplished runners.

While Andress may not have the running credentials of the usual RW cover girl, she does have three sub four-hour marathons to her credit, including the prestigious Boston Marathon. Those races, however, are just the latest challenges to test Andress’s endurance.

Choosing a Path

“I started running when I was 11 and competed in track and cross country throughout high school,” Andress says. Through college, graduate school, marriage, and having children, Andress retained some time for running, but a series of medical events in her thirties threatened to take away her hobby and much more.

She watched her mother and aunt go through breast cancer treatment in 2000 and 2003, respectively. Then, in 2004, she learned that her 11-month-old son, John, had a genetically caused hearing impairment. Andress was pregnant with her second child at the time of the diagnosis, and UAB geneticists said that her new baby could inherit the same hearing impairment.

Two months later, “I found a lump in my breast, and they confirmed that it was cancer and that it was in the entire breast,” Andress explains. “The cancer had replicated but hadn’t invaded healthy tissues. Radiation was an option, but I wanted to be as aggressive as possible.” Andress immediately had a mastectomy and six lymph nodes removed while still pregnant.

Her son, Will, was born in September and was diagnosed as hearing impaired. She began radiation therapy that same month, and in April 2005, Andress had her other breast removed. Her fight against cancer was over, but she emerged from the battle with a new outlook. “Those experiences taught us a lot,” she says. “When the stakes are that high, you can’t sit and complain about it. You have to look at the options, choose a path, and do it.”

rwcover_andressRunning with Purpose

Following her surgeries, Andress became involved with the Bell Center, a local institution dedicated to helping children with developmental delays. Her old love of running began to resurface—with a new goal. “I had never considered running a marathon before, but I saw an opportunity to raise money for the Bell Center through running,” she says. “Then it was the same process as when we faced a challenge in the doctor’s office. I envisioned an outcome, and I started working toward it.”

Andress ran her first marathon in Birmingham, finishing the 2010 Mercedes Marathon in 3:43—good enough to place her in the upper echelon of runners by qualifying her for the Boston Marathon. She ran the 2010 New York Marathon with a time of 3:58, then tackled the Boston course in April 2011, finishing in 3:46.

“Running has become a kind of obsession,” she says. “I’m involved with a great local running group, and I’m taking better care of myself than ever before by paying close attention to my running and my diet. I feel that I have a purpose in everything I do.”

Striking the Pose

RW readers include everyone from seasoned marathoners to rank beginners. Andress frequently monitors both the RW Web site and its Facebook page—which is where she noticed a request for stories of cancer survivors who were runners.

“I submitted my information in February and didn’t hear anything for several weeks,” she says. “Eventually it slipped my mind, but in March, I got a message asking if I could send them pictures.

“The whole experience has been wonderful,” says Andress. “Before the issue hit Birmingham, a guy sent me a picture from the New Orleans airport, and there I was on the newsstand. It’s funny because it’s usually in the middle of fitness magazines, so you see super-ripped people on either side, and then there’s me—just running.”