Saila Hanninen is a force. The Denver-based sales director, marathoner, and Ironman triathlete has raced all over the world. In June 2017, at age 35, she was diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer, and she approached it with the same strength she brings to every part of her life. Here, Saila shares her approach to beauty, including the best running tights, a great shampoo for fine hair, and how she’s changing lives through running…
How did you first get into running?
My dad was always a marathoner. In high school, I would run with him and I fell in love with it. I was 17 years old and my family was living in Atlanta when we got a mailer for the Thanksgiving Day marathon. This was back in the day where you had to fill out a form and mail it in. I was going to do the half marathon, but jokingly said, ‘Maybe I should do the full.’ My brother laughed at me. So I checked the box and was like, ‘Watch me!’ Running is the one time of day when I can be in my own thoughts, whether I’m running with music or without. It’s when I feel most alive.
What’s your daily skincare routine?
I moved from New York to Denver two years ago, where the winters are rough and the air is really dry. My skin is much drier here than it’s ever been before, so I focus on moisture as much as possible. I’ve been leaning towards cleaner products lately, and I love Follain. They tell you what each product is focused on, and they have lots of reviews, so it feels like you’re getting a consult when you browse the site. My current cleanser is the PAI Camellia and Rose hydrating cleanser, which is gentle. After that, I use the Maya Chia Super Critical Omega-3 oil, which is great when I need something calming and hydrating.
How do you care for your hair?
I use Oribe Gold Lust shampoo and conditioner, which is great for repair and restoring. My hair is on the finer side, and this gives it the best feeling and more volume. It also smells delicious.
Do you wear makeup?
Since moving to Colorado, I wear less than I did back in New York. I find that I feel better — and my skin is happier! — without much makeup. But if I’m going to throw something on, it’s mascara and bronzer. I’m not loyal to any mascara, but I’ve lived on NARS Laguna bronzer for years. I’ve tried others, but the big powder block is the one I buy over and over and over again. If I want to glam it up for an event or night out, I’ll use Dior Airflash foundation, which is almost like being airbrushed. For eyeshadow, I’ve found that Chantecaille has neutral shades that look good on blondes.
What’s your desert island product?
The one makeup item where I’m brand loyal is the Bobbi Brown gel pot eyeliner, which I’ve been using for as long as they’ve made it. I like the jet black, which I draw on with a brush. You can make it thinner or thicker depending on what you’re going for. I’ve tried other liners over the years — liquid, pencils — but I like that the gel goes on smooth and stays put all day.
In June 2017, you were diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. What happened next?
Lung cancer doesn’t have a good prognosis, and it felt like a death sentence in the beginning. The first doctor I met with told me there was a less than 10 percent chance I would live five years and that if I wanted children, I should be comfortable with someone else raising them. I’m a businesswoman — I work in sales — and I knew I would be doing myself a disservice not to look into all my options. After scheduling multiple meetings, I found my current doctor, who is committed to a treatment plan that makes me feel happy and healthy and normal as I can be.
You’ve become such an advocate for education and awareness. What do you want people to know?
Cancer isn’t something you understand just by being a good human — most of us don’t know much about treatment, medication, etc. until you’re forced to learn about it, when you or a loved one is diagnosed. You have to quickly get up to speed and learn the jargon. But what I’ve discovered through this experience is that there are incredible options for treatment, and more are in the works. The most important thing is to be an advocate for yourself. Don’t settle for the first thing you’re told. Do the research and dig as much as you can, despite how scary it may feel.
What’s your advice for anyone who wants to get into running but might be intimidated?
A lot of people say, ‘I wish I could get into running, but I hate it!’ But you kind of have to accept that in the first few weeks of any new physical activity, it feels miserable because the body isn’t used to it. Once you get past that initial phase, the body pretty quickly adapts, and it gets better and better. Whether you’re starting from nothing and training for a 5k, or you’re at a 5k building towards a marathon, it’s all about gradually training, so your body can adjust. It’s also good to have guidance along the way, whether it’s an individual coach, or an app like Peloton, which I use a lot.
Is there any running gear you’re into right now?
My number one must-have is Lululemon leggings, which I wear year round, whether it’s 10 degrees or 100. I love that the Fast and Free tights have a phone pocket — you can fit a fairly heavy iPhone and run 18 miles and it won’t bounce around. Their black leggings and black sports bra are my go-to. I also just got this metallic windbreaker that I love. It’s really crunchy sounding — I recently wore it on a conference call and was told I was really loud!
Why did you start your foundation?
After my diagnosis, people I hadn’t seen or talked to in years would reach out and say, ‘How can I help?’ But in hard moments, there’s very little people can do — you’re the one in the hospital, you’re the one doing the doing. I wanted to create a way for this army of people to help not just me, but millions of other people. Jaksaa raises funds that go directly to the doctors researching cancer — there are amazing individual researchers out there who have to get grants and win awards in order to get funding. By helping them raise the money for more clinical trial treatments, there will be more advancements when someone else is diagnosed down the road.
How did you choose the name Jaksaa for your fundraising team, and what does it mean?
Jaksaa is a Finnish word that doesn’t have a direct English translation, but the closest meaning is ‘the strength to endure.’ When I did the Ironman in Barcelona, I registered as a Finnish citizen (I’m a dual citizen), thinking it would be unique, but when I got there, there were Finns everywhere! All day, the Finnish people were cheering, ‘Jaksaa! Jaksaa!’ I knew what it meant, but that was the first time I’d heard it as a cheer. Soon after, I was diagnosed, and it’s the word I grabbed onto.
Tell me about your tattoo.
I never thought I would want a tattoo, but when my diagnosis was confirmed, my mom and I agreed to get matching tattoos of the word Jaksaa. It’s my daily reminder to be strong and keep going. I love that it means a little something different to everyone in every situation, whether it’s finishing a marathon or just pushing through a hard day.
Has your perspective on beauty shifted in the last few years?
When I lived in New York and worked in advertising, I saw the most glam side of beauty. Living in Colorado, dealing with a disease, and experiencing things outside my control gave me a whole new perspective. My hair was falling out and my skin was going crazy because of my medication. When you go through something like that, you realize a lot of the pressure we put on ourselves is self-inflicted. There’s so much beauty in being around people who make you feel loved and supported regardless of what you look like on the outside. Having supportive friends and family has had so much power in my life, both with running and with health. Five of us will be running the NYC marathon together, and our goal is to cross the finish line — together. I know that if the day of the race something goes wrong and it’s not the best day for me, my four friends will get me through it.
What’s one time in your life when you felt the most beautiful?
Consistently, one of the times I feel the most beautiful in my own skin is at the finish line of a race, with a medal in hand, especially if I’m with a friend. I love the environment of a marathon, especially in bigger cities, with crowds and being part of a shared challenge and experience, and the adrenaline at the end when you know you’ve pushed yourself past comfortable. There’s always a moment midway through where you’re like, ‘Everything hurts, why did I do this?’ Then you get to the finish line and you’re like, ‘I could do this again!’ Over and over, that’s when I feel the strongest and most beautiful, inside and out. That’s why I keep doing it!
Thank you so much, Saila! You’re amazing.
You can follow Saila in the NYC Marathon this Sunday, using the NYC Marathon app. She’ll also be posting live updates on her Instagram stories, as well. Good luck to everyone running this year! And if you’d like to donate to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, you can do so here.
(Photos courtesy of Saila Hanninen.)