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Crisis helps woman who enjoys running marathons appreciate life

Life was supposed to be getting easier for Becky Raczkowski.

She had just finished her MBA from the University at Buffalo. She was 28 -- "on a good career track," as she says -- dating and running to stay healthy.

"I thought I was healthy. I felt great -- just a little more tired than normal," recalls Raczkowski, of East Amherst, before training for the spring San Diego Marathon.

She recounts preparing to get her tonsils taken out. But presurgical blood work revealed her platelet level was severely low. Her doctor told her to get into the hospital right away.

The young woman thought to herself -- "I don't have the time to be sick right now." But her schedule would have to wait.

Tests pointed to myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), "a group of diseases that affect the bone marrow and can progress to acute myeloid leukemia," explains Deborah Pettibone, Roswell Park Cancer Institute representative.

It's what grounded astronomer Carl Sagan, who informed this Buffalo News reporter four months before he died that "its origin is nearly unknown" and that it was a disease he "had never heard of before."

Raczkowski, recently named a Roswell Park Cancer Institute "Star of Hope," was told she'd have to have a blood and marrow transplant for a chance at a cure.

She was lucky to have a sister who was a match.

The runner spent a month at Roswell Park, and then her mom became her at-home caregiver during a 12-month recovery.

"I remember feeling so frustrated and impatient during that time," she said. "I basically had to stop everything else in my life to focus on treatment and recovery."

Braced for the worst, she says the most loathsome part of the transplant was the convalescing boredom:

"I was just used to going and going," she said.

That was seven years ago.

Today she's on the fast track again -- running track that is.

She left a consulting job for what she calls a more "lifestyle-friendly" position as an audit manager for a regional health care insurer.

Raczkowski also began running marathons. The young executive finished her first marathon only a year after her transplant, with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program.

"Crossing that finish line was one of my happiest and proudest moments," she says. "It showed my parents, and proved to myself, that I really was OK. They were simply glowing with happiness and relief.

"I vividly remember being at mile 22 in my first marathon, which I walked and slowly jogged due to poor post-transplant lung capacity. My Team in Training coach was there with me, encouraging me to really push myself up a long, gradual hill in the 80-degree sun. She jokingly asked me if I'd ever do another marathon again. The first thing I thought was, 'Heck yes! Next year I'm going to RUN this marathon!'

"And I did. Going through my transplant helped me realize there's no reason to fear or back away from a challenge or a difficult situation in life, since it's these experiences that enable us to grow and learn more about ourselves -- and that kind of lesson is priceless."

She's completed no less than seven marathons and three half-marathons. With her Team in Training, she raised nearly $25,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for education, research and patient assistance.

Raczkowski met her husband, Tom, three years ago through a friend. It was love at first sight and they were married last summer, honeymooning in French Polynesia. Coincidentally, Tom's first wife died in her 20s from leukemia.

Getting ready for the leukemia benefit, the couple takes their two dogs, Baxter and Zack, on runs with them.

The high intensity life is back, with a difference.

"When you've gone through a tough crisis," says Becky Raczkowski, "you have a greater appreciation for everything."

e-mail: lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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