AKRON, Ohio — A few months after delivering a baby girl named Clare in 2019, Sarah Bokovitz decided to get back into running and signed up to run 13.1 miles as part of the FirstEnergy Marathon, Half Marathon and Team relay event in Akron.
She had done the training with her friend, Lisa Davis, and they felt good to go.
But three days before the annual event that attracts thousands of runners, Bokovitz got a shocking call that dashed her goal of lining up on the starting line and put her life in a terrifying limbo.
"I got the call on September 25, 2019 that I had breast cancer," Bokovitz said. "Breast cancer was literally the last thing that I saw coming,"
She was just 30 years old at the time and didn't notice any obvious symptoms. Bokovitz was tired but chalked that up to being a new mother. Breastfeeding was challenging, but she assumed she had a clogged milk duct.
However, doctors had concerns, and an ultrasound revealed the young Akron mom had an aggressive form of the disease: Stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer.
"The cancer was already far enough along that it was in my lymph nodes, many of the lymph nodes in my arm as well as my chest wall," she said.
She began a grueling treatment plan that included 12 rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, 30 rounds of radiation and immunotherapy.
Davis was also devastated by the news and felt conflicted over whether she should run the half-marathon that year.
"At first I was like, 'I can't run this,' and then I was like, 'How can I not run?'" Davis told News 5.
Davis ran the entire race carrying a stick with a picture of Bokovitz on top of it. Other friends had gathered along the course to show support.
"I think it was mile six or seven when I saw the girls and we just all cried. It was a lot that day," Davis said.
For Bokovitz, she was only beginning an arduous journey, uncertain if she would survive. She planned her own funeral, wrote letters to her daughter to read on milestone events, and started a book for her husband, Phil.
"I truly didn't know if I was going to make it," she said.
But after her surgery in February of 2020, Bokovitz was declared cancer-free. Treatments continued but she has remained in remission.
The family was told having more children was unlikely because of everything Bokovitz's body endured, but in February of 2022, along came "a miracle baby" named Benjamin.
"His middle name is Matthew, so miracle. The fact that he's here, it just leaves me speechless. Someone was looking out for me," she said.
Bokovitz credits an amazing family and friends support system for helping her beat breast cancer. Now she has her sights set on finishing the race she never started.
On September 24, she will be among more than 7,000 runners participating in either the marathon, half marathon or relay. Akron's marquee running event, celebrating its 20th anniversary, kicks off downtown at 7 a.m.
Three years later, Davis will also be back. She's thrilled to run side-by-side with her friend instead of carrying that wooden stick with the photo.
"She's a lot more fun than the stick," she joked.
Other close friends, Julia LaRocca and Darcy Alexander, plan to run the half marathon as well. They'll wear pink T-shirts with the words "SUPPORT SQUAD" on them.
"Everybody that I know asks me at least once a month, 'Hey, how is Sarah doing?' Even if they never met her, she empowered so many people," Alexander said.
"It's emotional anyway to watch the half marathon or the marathon and the finish line, so watching her cross will be a big deal," LaRocca added.
Bokovitz will be wearing her own pink T-shirt on that day. The back of it reads, "STAGE 3 TNBC 2019, 12 ROUNDS OF CHEMO, DOUBLE MASTECTOMY, 30 ROUNDS OF RADIATION, CLINICAL TRIALS, HALF MARATHON 2022, BELIEVE."
She hopes her story inspires others battling cancer and reminds them to "just keep going one foot in front of the other" and to reach out to people for support.
During a recent run in the Sand Run Metro Park, Bokowitz said it's hard to imagine how it will feel to cross the finish line, but it's sure to be an emotional experience.
"It's going to probably be a flood of different emotions. I think I'm just gonna take it as it comes. There will probably be tears involved," she said.
Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.