Women Who Move: Serena Ramsey Burla

"I was young, healthy and active—cancer was the furthest thing from my mind."

I was brought up in a running family. My dad has been a high school cross country coach for 37 years. Growing up, I idolized the young women that ran on my dad’s team. I loved to run around the course cheering them on, and sometimes they would let me join them on their cool down.

Because the seed was planted early on, I’ve been passionate about racing for all of my life. I ran track and cross country in high school and went on to become an All-American athlete at the University of Missouri. After college, I started training as a member of Riadha, an elite running club coached by Isaya Okiwya.

Two years later, I took a break to give birth to my son, Boyd. There weren’t many women at the time who were mothers and professional runners, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to manage both passions.

When Boyd was just 5 months old, I raced the Mini 10k in New York. Finishing second in the highly competitive field proved that I could balance the two. I continued to race toward my dreams, while being an involved and loving mom to my son.

In 2010, I nabbed a second-place finish at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships, one of the biggest races of my career. I was on top of the world. A few weeks after the half, however I started experiencing pain in my hamstring. Assuming it was a simple running injury, I went to the doctor and discovered I had a cancerous tumor in my right bicep femoris.

The news came as a complete shock. I was young, healthy and active—cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. Doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center successfully removed my tumor but had to take a part of the muscle with it. I didn’t know if I would ever run again. During the treatment, I stayed focused on one goal: get healthy enough to keep up with Boyd.

Miraculously, my leg healed completely. Just nine months after my surgery, I returned to the place where the procedure was performed to run the New York City Marathon. The race was incredibly empowering—that’s what I love about running. It enriches your life, builds a community around you and helps you grow as a person. I am forever grateful for the support I received from fellow runners during my setbacks, and I look forward to being a part of this community for many years to come.