Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons
This Runner isn't letting anything slow her down—including a cancer diagnosis.
The scar on Brooke Torres’ stomach tells a story.
The origin of the mark dates back to a surgery where a team of doctors determined the severity of her cancer diagnosis. Before the procedure, a suspicious mole resided on Torres’ skin. The growth caused her to bleed underneath the bulletproof vest that she wore while on patrol as a West Lake Hills police officer.
Two years later, the scar is a reminder of her ongoing battle with stage III melanoma. It’s also a symbol of her determination to beat the disease and someday qualify for the Boston Marathon.
"I try to use running as my escape," Torres tells Austin Fit. "It gives me a goal and something to focus on and take my mind off of the melanoma. When I got the diagnosis, I knew I didn't want to suffer. I didn't want to be that person in a hospice. I was 30...too young to die. Running has helped me through this more than anything."
Torres was diagnosed with melanoma in January 2016. In the year prior to her diagnosis, she joined the West Lake Hills police department and made her debut in the marathon. By all appearances, Torres was in the prime of her life as a healthy, active individual, but the mole on her stomach started to be a cause for concern to the self-described "sun worshipper," who grew up using tanning beds and oils. Eventually, the spot started to grow and bleed. Torres went to her dermatologist who removed the mole and ran a test to determine if the growth was cancerous.
Torres received the dreaded phone call on New Year's Eve 2015 while she was on patrol. Cancer cells were found in the mole, and a surgical oncologist later determined that she needed surgery so the doctors could figure out how far the cancer had spread. In January 2016, Torres had surgery to remove a mass that had formed inside her stomach. She received the official diagnosis a few weeks after the procedure: Torres had stage III melanoma, which had already spread to one of her lymph nodes and was living in her bloodstream.
As terrifying as the diagnosis has been, she hasn't let the disease slow her down in the slightest. In May 2016, Torres was promoted to detective in the West Lake Hills Police Department. After the surgery, her doctor recommended that she take at least two days off from running to let the stitches on her stomach heal. In the middle of training for the 2016 Austin Half Marathon, Torres admitted that she could only sit still for one day before she tried to go for a jog.
"I didn't tell anybody that I tried to run because I was going nuts! He [the doctor] did these stitches that dissolve, and it looked like glue holding it back together," she says.
Torres has run nearly every day since and doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon despite the difficult side effects of her treatment. For three years she will be on an immunotherapy treatment plan. When treatment began in March 2016, she had to receive infusions every three weeks, but now she is down to every 12 weeks. She schedules her treatments around her racing schedule and often suffers from flu-like symptoms and gastrointestinal issues, but she doesn't let anything prevent her from living her life to the fullest. Running is a crucial part of that balance.
“I got over being sad about it and chose to look at life differently because you just don't know with melanoma or with any type of cancer, it could come back at any time....but everything has been good so far," Torres says. When I was diagnosed, I was already really into my running, but I think that diagnosis was the extra nudge for me to go out and see what I could do.”
Torres has enjoyed the escape that running provides ever since she joined her high school cross country team in College Station. She walked onto the track team at the University of Texas, but numerous injuries forced her to leave. A few years after graduating, Torres made a comeback in the half marathon and marathon distances under the guidance of Colorado-based coach Jason Fitzgerald.
Her 26.2-mile debut at the 2015 Austin Marathon didn't go as planned—a lack of specific workout preparation led to the dreaded "wall" at mile 16—and Torres swore she wouldn't run another marathon. But a few hours later, she changed her mind and decided that she wanted redemption.
"I always go by the never-give-up mentality. I'm really stubborn. I always try to find a way to get it done, and I think that came back to me after the emotions of doing so poorly in the marathon. That went away after a few hours." Torres says. "I believed I could run the marathon and get my time, but I would have to be smart about it. I think I wanted to challenge myself and prove that I could do it."
A source of inspiration for Torres has been a fellow cancer survivor and professional runner, Gabe Grunewald. Grunewald has battled four bouts of adenoid cystic carcinoma while competing against the best middle distance runners in the world, and she continues to share her story with a large following. After reading Grunewald's story last summer, Torres was even more motivated to run through her treatment.
“For her to go out there and do what she does while receiving treatment is so inspiring,” she recalls.
At the 3M Half Marathon in January, Torres ran 1:25:22 and finished 11th among the female finishers. She recently completed her second marathon in Austin with a finishing time of 3:46—all while battling gastrointestinal issues. Torres' ultimate goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but she will need to run under the qualifying time of 3:35:00 for her age group. Eventually, she would like to run under the three-hour barrier.
The future is looking bright as her latest PET scan showed that the treatment is working in the battle against the disease. But no matter the outcome, Torres says she will always find a way keep running and reaching for her goals.
“I have big goals, and I try not to let my melanoma get in the way of it. I told myself that I wasn't going to,” she says.