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Research Is the Reason I Can Cross the Finish Line

By BCRF | February 27, 2024

After being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in her 20s, Madeline credits research for getting her back to health so she could complete her fifth marathon

In January 2020, while finishing graduate school in London, Madeline McCloughan found a lump in her left breast. Alarmed by this discovery, she visited her doctor, who told her to keep an eye on it. After a month, when it didn’t go away, she went in for an ultrasound and breast biopsy.

“That was over the course of three appointments, and then it was March 2020,” she remembered. “It looked like the U.S. was going to shut its borders, so I made the decision to come back and finish my degree remotely.”

On March 15, 2020, Madeline made it back to her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, and two days later, she received a phone call from her doctor back in London.

“He shared my test results that showed it was cancer,” she said. “I was alone when I found out, and it was like an out-of-body experience.”

Madeline soon found out she had stage 3, triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive form of the disease that disproportionately impacts younger women and lacks many targeted treatments—making it a major focus of BCRF’s annual research investment.

“There weren’t any women close to me that I knew that had breast cancer,” she said. “I never thought it was something that happened to people in their 20s, and I wasn’t aware of that subtype either.”

Right as she was about to start chemotherapy, Madeline developed a slight fever. Since she had traveled recently, her doctor tested her for COVID-19. The test came back positive, delaying treatment for nearly two weeks so she could quarantine.

“Having COVID at the beginning, when there were still a lot of unknowns, was tough,” she said. “The first few weeks after your diagnosis are probably when you need a hug the most.”

In the end, Madeline completed several months of chemotherapy, had a double mastectomy, and finished 28 rounds of radiation right before the end of 2020. Because of the pandemic, Madeline was forced to undergo most of these treatments alone.

Surgery, of all her treatments, was the hardest part of her cancer experience.

“I wasn’t mentally prepared for the impact of surgery. I didn’t have a reference point in the same way that I did for chemotherapy since people talk about it much more,” she said.

Now that treatment is behind her, Madeline is grateful to have had a complete response to treatment but still navigating the complex survivorship experience.

“Life post-treatment is like a roller coaster,” she said. “It’s an excellent lesson in giving yourself grace. Sometimes things go really well, and sometimes things are hard. But I think it’s gotten easier with time.”

Running has always been one of Madeline’s passions, and prior to her cancer diagnosis, she had completed four marathons and was training for her fifth. She was thrilled to be able to start training again.

“Running is central to my identity, and I told my oncologist at my first appointment that I’m going to run a marathon when all this is over,” she said.

To cross the finish line of that fifth marathon and celebrate putting breast cancer behind her, she invited friends and family to join her in running the 2021 Twin Cities Marathon on Team BCRF.

“It was so special to have all my loved ones get together and run to raise money for BCRF,” she said.

Madeline alone raised an incredible $21,791 for breast cancer research—more than she ever expected—and her friends and family’s support helped push the entire Twin Cities team to raise more than $52,000 total. It made crossing the finish line that much more gratifying.

Madeline’s experience with breast cancer also showed her the importance of research firsthand. She credits it for the fact that her chemotherapy regimen was shorter and that she was offered more treatment options. Because of its aggressiveness and fewer available therapies, TNBC especially needs more research, Madeline said.

“We need research to come up with treatment options,” she said. “I benefitted from the women before me who went through studies and trials, and so I want to do what I can to pay it forward.”

Read more stories from BCRF’s Research Is the Reason storytelling initiative here.