The first thing you notice when you meet Little Silver's Kristin Grassi is how full of life she is, even when she's telling you about her breast cancer diagnosis 18 months ago, her decision to go for a double mastectomy and the grueling rounds of chemotherapy that sapped her energy and obliterated her hair.
"My story is supposed to be a good story," she says, perched on the corner of her couch wearing a yellow "Survivor" t-shirt, her short brown curls pushed back from her face by a stretchy headband. "The cancer is out of my body, I know it is."
For Grassi, 39, the journey has helped put life into perspective.
When she got the call on April 15, 2011, that cells from her biopsy had tested positive for cancer, her first question was, "Will this kill me?"
After the doctor on the other end assured her that it had been detected early and was highly treatable, Grassi says she kicked into survival mode, quickly enlisting her younger sister in Bergen County to create a plan of attack. Grassi explains that they had lost their mother in a car accident when they were young and she drew on those old survival instincts.
"I didn't feel weak," she continues. "I was like, 'What's the game plan?'"
Within two hours, Grassi had nailed down an appointment a few days later with the chief breast surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and began what she says was a series of encounters that helped pave her way to where she is today.
"Every step of the way, I was put into the right hands at the right time," says Grassi, whose two children are now 8 and 6. "How lucky am I?"
Following a double mastectomy a month later and just one day after her 38th birthday, Grassi learned that the cancer was more aggressive than doctors initially thought and chemotherapy was recommended to combat the estrogen positive and HER2/neu positive tumor that had been discovered.
"I woke up the next day and was freaking out, I couldn't wrap my head around it," she says of the news, so her husband, Mike, told her to go to the gym and get on a treadmill while he called the doctor to get more information.
"Here's the fun part," she says smiling. "I've lived in New Jersey my whole life, and I've never seen Bruce Springsteen."
But that day, Springsteen was working out at the same gym and gave her a nod as the walked passed each other and said, "Hey."
"And that just did it," she continues, "I left the gym with a kick in my step, thinking, 'I just saw Bruce Springsteen, life is good. I can do this.' "
While the chemo left her "zonked," she says that's when friends and neighbors stepped in to help. "The town wrapped its arms around me and my family," she says of the nightly meals, multitude of play-dates and rides to soccer practices and birthday parties. "I really felt held up," Grassi says.
A year after her surgery, she and Mike decided to downsize and free up finances to travel and enjoy life. "We've got to live," she explains. They sold their house in a couple of weeks and are renting in town until they can move into their new house that they are renovating.
In the meantime, she has decided to take Mike up on a challenge he issued while they were waiting to meet with her surgeon at Mount Sinai following the mastectomy.
She says her husband, who ran the New York City Marathon in 2008, was looking out the window and noted that they were near mile 22 of the race route.
"Think about how good it's going to feel running past this a year from now," she remembers him saying to her and thinking, "He's crazy."
One year and six rounds of chemotherapy later, Grassi is entering the last leg of training for the Nov. 4 marathon, which she is using as a vehicle to raise money for the American Cancer Society, along with Mike and two good friends.
They call their team, "Running Sucks, But Cancer Sucks More," and have raised over $14,000 between the four runners, one of whom is their good friend Tim Dengler of Little Silver.
The long runs that are part of the training, which include listening to Bruce on her iPod, have turned out to be empowering and help her remember how far she has come in her battle against cancer, when all she could do was shuffle along the trails of Meadow Ridge following surgery.
"Back then, I would say out loud, 'I'm going to remember this,'" she recalls. "I'm going to look back and see how far I've come."