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Warrior moms will help the Alaska Run for Women continue the fight against breast cancer

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: June 7
  • Published June 7

Breast cancer survivor Jessica Weller celebrates at the finish line of the 2010 Run for Women.  (Marc Lester / ADN archives)

It's time to paint the town pink again. The annual Alaska Run for Women is Saturday, a footrace that is one part competition, one part fundraiser, and one hundred percent female.

The race, now in its 26th year, has raised more than $2.4 million in dollars and donated mammograms for the fight against breast cancer. It's got a vibe unlike any other event in Anchorage, a celebration of strength with hints of sorrow, a showcase of fitness with reminders of the fragility of life.

It attracts many of the city's best athletes. Last year's winner was Olympic gold-medal skier Kikkan Randall, and the course record-holder is Olympic marathon runner Chris Clark.

It also attracts some of the city's greatest warriors — women who battle breast cancer while continuing to live their lives as mothers, wives, coworkers, friends and athletes.

Among them are 44-year-old Jennifer Barnard and 33-year-old Jessica Weller.

Both are mothers of young children. Barnard and her husband, Tony Barnard, have an 8-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl; Weller and her husband, Tony Schnese, have two daughters, one who just turned 3 and the other who is about to turn 2.

Barnard is the defending champion of the Run for Women's survivors category, a victory she secured 13 months after discovering a lump in her breast on Mother's Day in 2016.

Jennifer Barnard won the survivor division in last year’s Alaska Run for Women. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

She's a former track and cross-country runner at Western Washington University and still looks very much like an athlete. She finished last year's 5-mile race in 36 minutes, 28 seconds, averaging a per-mile pace of 7:18.

Barnard prefers mountain running to road running and has registered solid results in several of Alaska's mountain runs. But she returned to the road for last year's Run for Women because she felt like she had to.

"Now I was one of them," Barnard said. "One of the statistics."

Weller became one of the statistics in 2010.

She was 25 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and multiple doctors told her she was the youngest breast cancer patient they had ever encountered.

Eight years later, Weller is again a statistic. A scary one. Her cancer is back — in her bones, lungs and even in her brain, where what she described as a small lesion was extracted by radiation.

"I did the whole five-year thing, you know. I was in remission," Weller said. "I went forward living my life as if I didn't have cancer. I had two babies back-to-back."

Last year she started having trouble taking deep breaths at yoga classes. Then she started having some vision problems. "We did some scans," she said, "and it came back (with) what you don't want to hear."

The first time she had cancer, Weller blogged about her experience as she went through a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. In an interview with the Daily News prior to the 2010 Run for Women, she talked about how she and her husband had traveled to a Seattle fertility clinic before she began chemotherapy so they could save embryos made from her eggs and his sperm.

They called it their insurance plan in case Weller couldn't get pregnant after chemotherapy. It turned out they didn't need it.

"It was one of those things where you try for a whole year and nothing happens. We were just about to take out the 'savings' and then I got pregnant. It was kind of magical," Weller said.

"So I got pregnant naturally, and then I got pregnant again naturally."

Now that her cancer is back, Weller is potty-training instead of blogging. Emrie, 3, and Brielle, almost 2, are aware their mom is sick. They know she goes to the doctor a lot, that she gets tired, that she can't give them piggy-back rides anymore because the cancer is in her spine.

"Whenever they ask me questions I'm pretty honest with them," Weller said. "But I am a cup-is-half-full person, so I'm not going to give them all of the somber stuff, the poor-me, the boo-hoo."

With her next breath, Weller speaks to Emrie: "You want some hot tea? Let's blow your nose first."

Such double-tasking, Weller said, "is the story of being a mom."

Being a mom with breast cancer is another story, one shared by Weller and Barnard.

Both kept living their lives after their diagnoses.

Weller and her husband spent four years in Denver, where Weller earned a masters degree in counseling so she could become a licensed professional counselor. She and Tony, a Fred Meyer's pharmacy manager, returned to Anchorage in 2016, and today Weller has a private practice that she works at two days a week.

Barnard, a longtime supervisor for Providence Medical Center's cardiac and pulmonary rehab program, had a busy summer planned the year she got sick.

She went through with her plans anyway, sandwiching two lumpectomy surgeries between a week-long hiking trip in the Sierra Mountains with her parents and a trip to Michigan for her grandmother's 90th birthday. After that, she began radiation.

Barnard's last treatment was more than a year ago. She said her overall health is good, but she and her husband are acutely aware of how quickly things can change. Five years ago, Tony Barnard was diagnosed with kidney cancer at age 36.

The double-whammy helped inspire a life-changing venture: Barnard is quitting her job, her husband is taking a leave of absence from his job at BP, and in August they will load the family and whatever else fits into their RV and hit the road for a yearlong trip. They plan to hit nearly every corner of the United States, with a side trip to either Peru or Morocco.

Tony gets to keep his insurance benefits during his leave of absence, and the couple will home-school Elias, who is 8, and Savannah, who is 7.

"Life is short," Barnard said. "We have two small kids and we want to travel and show them the world.

"It's gonna be a roller-coaster, but we need to do it."

Weller is happy to stay put in Anchorage, where she and her husband grew up — they started dating as 8th graders at Hanshew Middle School. Both sets of grandparents are in Alaska to provide support as Weller again wages war against cancer.

Weller said her prognosis "is not beautiful when you look it up." But she is benefitting from medications that weren't even available during her first go-round, and she and her husband are not letting the disease rule them.

"We're not in the mood for waiting," she said. "We're in it to live life for the moment, so we do what we've been wanting to do."

One of those things is taking Emrie and Brielle to Saturday's Run for Women, where the plan is to walk the 1-mile event.

Weller will wear the pink tu-tu from her first race as a survivor. She anticipates a day of celebration and, yes, sorrow. She thinks she will feel more somber this time, but she wants her girls to feel "that sense of empowerment and community" that is palpable at every Run for Women.

Barnard will be back too, sans tu-tu. She's running the 5-mile race and is competitive enough to want to match or beat her time from last year. She'll be one of those fit athletes who knows first-hand about the fragility of life.

"I wanted to tell my story because I want people to know you can come through it and get out on the other side," Barnard said. "When you're in it, it's very scary. But it's part of my story now."

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