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PITTSFIELD — A big container truck takes a right onto Route 7, spewing exhaust and kicking up sand that pelts off her bright pink facemask. As it passes, Jorja Flaherty breaks back out into a jog.

Shiobbean Lemme calls after her, saying "wait," this is supposed to be the walking portion of a 3-mile interval training run.

But on days when Flaherty is feeling good, the onus is on Lemme to simply keep up.

"Shiobbean says, I'll do everything that she tells me to do, except slow down," Flaherty says.

Lemme, who owns Berkshire Running Center, agrees.

"It's kind of hard to keep her in check," says the woman Flaherty calls `her S.' "We're just discovering there is a really big connection between staying active and keeping sane."

The sanity comes in the midst of a terminal diagnosis with metastatic type 2 negative breast cancer that has ruthlessly spread throughout Jorja's body.

Too often over the past year, the two fast friends have met up for strolls that begin on a bad foot.

"Sometimes we go out in really shitty moods," said Lemme. "With everything going on. I mean, Jorja has got the craziest deck of cards to play, and she is playing them during a worldwide pandemic. So you're not going to meet anybody with better disposition.

"But, we always come back happier."

They'll cover 3 to 4 miles at a clip most days, and have been training to take on a virtual version of the annual Friehofer's Run for Women. As Lemme says, everything Flaherty does, she does it big.

The two met last spring after Flaherty's husband, Live 95.9's Bryan Slater, brought her to Berkshire Running Center and she signed up for Lemme's training program to run in the annual Independence Day 5K, which she completed in 34 minutes, 32 seconds.

That's a steep mark to hit at this point, but for the woman who dons a mask that reads "breast cancer warrior," every day she moves, she wins.

Since her initial diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma in September of 2017, those victories have occasionally been hard to come by. Roadblocks in the form of new tumors and grim prognoses move the finish lines and the battle rages on.

"We started training, and then I got some bad news, and I slowly kind of stopped running for a little while," admits Flaherty.

And then, Freihofer's appeared on the horizon. Lemme is an ambassador for the annual Albany race that brings around 5,000 women to it each year.

"She signed me up without my permission!," joked Flaherty. "And she says, `You are going to run this 5K,' and I said, `I don't know if I can do it.'"

The training started, but was hindered once more by a bad phone call from the doctors. Lemme urged her friend to keep moving and said the two could walk the Friehofer's.

"And then, one day, I'm going to quote Forrest Gump here, `I just felt like running,'" said Flaherty. "So, one day on our walk, I was like, 'Let's run. Let's do it.' And we would run one telephone pole, walk another telephone pole, walk, run."

The plan now is to complete a virtual Friehofer's before the end of May.

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"Jorja is pretty easy to love," says Lemme, standing with a mask on about 15 feet behind Flaherty in a garage.

The two have gathered, as they do regularly, to go out for a walk, hike, jog, run or whatever Flaherty is feeling up to. This time they're headed for an abandoned dam in Pittsfield supposedly drenched in graffiti art.

"We met last spring," Flaherty says during the Zoom interview a couple weeks beforehand. "I wanted to get into running because I knew it would be good for my health, and having breast cancer, I wanted to throw everything at it."

Flaherty was first diagnosed while 12 weeks pregnant with her second child. She was a 31-year-old part-time surgical nurse and full-time mom to her first son, Liam.

"It was just insane. Everything was fast, and I thought, can I still have this baby? How am I supposed to do this?," Flaherty said. "It was the best choice ever to keep him, and just trust in God that he would be OK. And he's more than OK. He's perfect."

On Feb. 28, 2018, Jorja and Bryan welcomed their second son, Ollie, who just turned 2 years old.

A couple months after he was born, Jorja underwent a double mastectomy. All the chemotherapy she went through while pregnant didn't eliminate the cancer from her body.

What followed was a marathon of radiation, chemo, surgeries and clinical trials. The cancer became pervasive, and scans found it in her lungs and then her bones, and finally her brain.

"It's blow after blow. Definitely periods of depression, wanting to give up. But I wouldn't give up. Just have to keep trying. It's just like with running, just keep going," she said. "To know that I can get to the next mile, you know, I'm training to be a runner, but also training in my journey with cancer, training to get to the next step mentally, to get through the next treatment."

And through that training a friendship was born.

There's a repeated line in the television show "Firefly," that goes "When you can't run anymore, you crawl. And when you can't do that anymore. You find someone to carry you."

If the time comes, Jorja Flaherty has Lemme and an entire community waiting to help carry her. But for now, Flaherty is far from done with running.

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"You'd be hard-pressed to find someone with a better disposition than Jorja," said Lemme. "She takes her energy and puts it back out into the universe, and I think it's beautiful, because I don't know that I would be so gracious. It's a great thing to be around."

The two meet up for long walks and jogs and go searching for the beautiful aspects of nature. Flaherty notes that nature always seems to come out when they're around, from birds and flowers to turtles and sunshine.

Lemme says she tries to avoid medical talk, there is plenty to vent about from motherhood to the current pandemic. As Flaherty has coined, "everybody has a hard."

"It definitely has increased my positivity, just being outside. This whole journey has changed me. I see things so differently," said Flaherty. "We just started hiking, and we stare at every bird. We look at every plant. We just enjoy it out there. And life has a new meaning because when you're faced with such a grim diagnosis, you just look at life differently."

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Jorja is getting her conditioning back, but every mile gained comes in the midst of more chemotherapy, drugs and trips to Boston.

So the training remains flexible. Last week she started on a new drug and woke up on Wednesday feeling awful. A scheduled jog downtown transformed into a 3-mile run/walk alongside Pontoosuc Lake a day later.

As promised, nature came out to greet them. Flaherty and Lemme masked up, pointed north and started churning up asphalt. Birds chirped, chipmunks scurried across the sidewalk and brilliant sunshine soaked the emerging green mountains and still waters.

Nature wasn't alone, as some dozen cars recognized that pink mask passing by and laid on their horns in support.

She ran to one marker, walked to the next, but as soon as her heart rate hits 143 beats per minute — which she remarks is slang for `I love you' — it's time to kick it into high gear once more.

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"They're totally all for it," says Flaherty of her doctors' take on running. "I had a doctor that gave me 3 to 6 months to live. My oncologist here in the Berkshires said, `I think you can beat that. You're still running.'"

Her hours on the streets and trails with Lemme are an escape of sorts. Back home, there are two young boys to care for, countless messages to return and treatments to research.

Ollie doesn't know too much of his mom's illness, but can recognize when she's feeling it.

"He will put his head on my chest and ask 'Momma sick?,'" says Flaherty. "My four-year-old is smarter than the average four-year-old. He's kind of an old soul, and he's pretty aware. We pray together, and he's always asking about it. `Is your cancer gone bye bye?' And he'll ask me daily if I'm going to go take my nap."

She called her initial diagnosis absolutely terrifying, but she's found strength in her relationship with God, and in sharing her story.

"I became so much closer with Him, and I can feel his presence. I tell my husband, sometimes I can feel this realm around me, like this warmth. Hands touching me," she says. "It becomes the new normal and you just do it. And I have found so much good in it, if you can believe that. I really want to support people going through cancer, especially young women going through breast cancer, I want to be there for them.

"And I want to tell people they can do it. They can get through it."

Flaherty has never shied away from telling her tale, whether it be on stage at the Relay for Life last year or daily online.

"I always was open about it, never embarrassed. It's life, it happens. And there's just so many people that are going through a similar experience," she says. "There could be a young girl pregnant out there that just finds a lump in her breast and goes through the same thing and she's completely lost, like I was.

"I just wanted to be there for people."

That positivity and openness has spawned and spurred a community, making Flaherty a different kind of social media influencer. One who promotes prayer and good vibes.

"There are so many people praying, an entire community. I can feel that, and it feels good," she says. "I get this positivity from God, but also from my community, my family and friends. People have donated money, local artists have given me virtual concerts. People have sent us meals, prayed for me, given me gifts and cards and words of encouragement."

All that support has given her the drive and endurance to keep going, and the time to spend with her little ones.

"They always keep me smiling, keep me going. They're full of energy," she says. "I can't slow down, I can't sleep when I want to sleep. I have to take care of them. I think that all keeps me going. There's no time to sit back."

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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown another obstacle at Flaherty, who notes she just wants to hug people and cry happy tears with them, and then go get dinner and drinks.

Oh, and run without a mask.

Because, there are more birds and flowers to see, and always another telephone pole to reach.

Back in the parking lot alongside Pontoosuc, over liters of seltzer, Flaherty asks about the Friehofer's course and comments that she likes the hills. She asks Lemme to map out a course that includes some bigger ones.

For Jorja, hills are just another obstacle she's more than ready to overcome.

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com, at @WalshWrites89 on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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