Dr. Patrick J. Boland, an orthopedic oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, had operated on many patients with sarcomas — cancers of soft tissues — but he had never had a patient like Serena Burla, a 27-year-old elite distance runner from St. Louis. She had a potentially deadly cancer, a synovial sarcoma, that arose in and replaced one of the muscles in her right hamstring.
Treatment was to remove that muscle, the biceps muscle of her hamstring.
“You can’t stitch it back together,” Boland said. “There’s just nothing there.”
Before he operated on Feb. 26, 2010, Boland went to the medical literature to see if there was any other athlete who had that hamstring muscle removed, recovered and competed again.
He could not find one.
“We did such a radical operation,” Boland said. He was not sure Burla would be able to run, and even if she could, he doubted if she would compete again at an elite level.
She proved him wrong.
Last November, Burla competed in the New York City Marathon, her first. She came in 19th, in 2 hours 37 minutes 6 seconds. She came in second in the national half-marathon championship in January. She had planned to run in the New York City Half Marathon on Sunday, but her left hamstring — the healthy one — hurt a bit on Friday when she was doing a training workout on a track. She decided to pull out of the race rather than risk aggravating it.
“It’s a little bump in the road,” Burla said of her left hamstring injury. “In the grand scheme of things, it will pass and I will be fine. After last year, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.”
And Burla has bigger things in mind. She has qualified for the Olympic marathon trials next January. She loves to run. “I am very competitive,” she said.
That, said Steve Edwards, the husband and coach of Shalane Flanagan, who competed against Burla last year in the national half-marathon and in the New York City Marathon, is an understatement.
“The girl is tough as nails,” Edwards said.
Burla grew up running — her father was a high school track and cross-country coach in Waukesha, Wis. — and said she began racing short distances in the third grade. She wanted to win every race and would break down in tears if someone beat her.
“I think I drove my dad crazy,” she said. “He was like: ‘It’s O.K. You’re not going to win every time. You won’t get to run again if you don’t stop crying.’