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virtual boston marathon

After grim cancer diagnosis, MIT’s Emily Rabinovitsj runs virtual Boston Marathon

MIT junior Emily Rabinovitsj ran the virtual Boston Marathon in California this weekend. She was originally scheduled to run in April's Marathon before it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
MIT junior Emily Rabinovitsj ran the virtual Boston Marathon in California this weekend. She was originally scheduled to run in April's Marathon before it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Emily Rabinovitsj thought she had nothing to worry about.

At least that’s what her doctors told her in Aug. 2019. The lump on the MIT rower’s neck had grown three times its size in the year since her autoimmune thyroid disease diagnosis. A negative ultrasound gave the lump less than a one percent chance of being cancerous.

After leaving her internship in Lima, Peru four weeks early due to a bout of pneumonia and what she called the worst stomach pain of her life, she knew something was wrong.

“I could feel the nodule pushing up against my esophagus and thyroid,” she said.

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So, Rabinovitsj, a junior from Menlo Park, Calif. trusted her gut and opted for a surgery that removed half her thyroid. Doctors had found a nodule so big, it hid a mass of cancerous cells underneath it.

“We were just in such shock,” Rabinovitsj’s mother, Elizabeth said.

“We came home and just sat and stared at each other. Her cancer was just so early and it had been by chance that she had gotten it removed.”

Now, 13 months later, Rabinovitsj overcame her health scare when she completed the virtual Boston Marathon on Saturday.

“I got this gift of being able to have a full life after a diagnosis and I feel like I have a responsibility to take advantage of that opportunity and help others have this same opportunity,” Rabinovitsj said.

“Now, I’m running to prove to myself that I can bounce back from anything my body wants to throw at me.”

Rabinovitsj ran the race in California and raised $10,000 for 15-40 Connection, a Westborough based non-profit that educates people on how to detect early-stage cancer.

She said she feels just as determined to run the race amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I feel like I’m still motivated to run the virtual marathon because I’m running for a cause that’s really important to me,” Rabinovitsj said. “I’m still on this journey to continue this new life after a cancerous diagnosis. I’ll be over a year since my cancer diagnosis and my surgery. It’s not like after you have that surgery, that journey ends.”

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Rabinovitsj says her personal journey to the virtual race began over a year ago.

Rabinovitsj trained with other charity runners in the winter before the in-person iteration of the Boston Marathon was canceled.
Rabinovitsj trained with other charity runners in the winter before the in-person iteration of the Boston Marathon was canceled.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

She remembers taking days to get out of bed after her surgery in Aug. 2019, making her decision to leave the MIT lightweight women’s crew team that September that much easier. She had competed on the varsity team as a freshman but the Mechanical Engineering major wanted to focus on her coursework and lighten her workload.

Rabinovitsj also needed to restrict her diet and adjust to a whole new post-op reality.

“At first, everyone says, ‘Oh thank God it’s not cancer,’” her mother said. “But then, it turns out to be cancer and now we need to monitor her for the rest of her life.”

Alex Reinhart, an Alpha Thi sorority sister with Rabinovitsj, witnessed the psychological toll on Rabinovitsj. One day, Reinhart arrived home and found Rabinovitsj hyperventilating on the couch.

“She had been walking home over the bridge and someone had scared her,” Reinhart said. “She was upset at how scared she easily was now. That’s when I realized how hard this was for her.”

In an effort to stay active and keep her spirits up, Rabinovitsj decided to pick up running. What began with 30-minute light jogs along the Charles River evolved into longer distance runs to Copley Square.

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Reinhart took notice and encouraged her to keep pushing herself. A week before the 2019 Cambridge Half Marathon, Reinhart had asked Rabinovitsj to run the race with her. Rabinovitsj agreed and ran a 1:51:20.

“To be honest, she was pushing me way harder than I would have pushed myself,” Reinhart said.

Rabinovitsj then signed up for the Steep Ravene Marathon in Stinson Beach, Calif. in January. The marathon consisted of 6,400 feet of total elevation sprawled across an off-road trail—a stark contrast to the flat roads of Cambridge. Excited by how well her daughter had navigated the course, her mother recommended Rabinovitsj apply to run the Boston Marathon on their car ride home.

“It took a couple of times to talk to her about doing it, but then she got this light in her eye and I knew she was going to stop at nothing to run it,” her mother said.

Rabinovitsj found her chance to run Boston when 15-40 Connection opened applications for four additional bids at the start of that spring semester.

“Her application just jumped off the page,” Joyce Davidson, Vice President of Communications and Engagement at 15-40 Connection said. “It was clear she felt so strongly about our mission and that she was living the mission.”

Rabinovitsj wants to serve as a role model for those adjusting to life after a cancer diagnosis. She believes her own fight with cancer fits with 15-40 Connection’s mission of educating people to recognize when something feels wrong with their bodies and speaking up to their doctors about it.

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And, with the money she raises, she wants to see many more diagnoses turn into marathon stories, much like her own.

“Within a year, I got a cancer diagnosis, had it removed, and then ran a marathon,” Rabinovitsj said. “Now, it’s my responsibility to take of advantage of that and do my best to give people that same opportunity by raising money for 15-40.”