I write a lot about fitness and staying active and how for me, it is how I express myself and relieve stress. This is true of active women- tomboy or otherwise. A high school friend of mine that I ran track and cross country with is one on of these women. She went on to attended the Air Force Academy and served active duty, meeting her husband and starting a family. I asked her to write up her experience as an active woman who had to face what no one wants to face- cancer. This is her story of reconciling the diagnosis of ovarian cancer and how her experiences as an athlete assisted in her treatment and recovery. At the time, she was the mother of a 2 year old and I am happy to say has since had another child.
There were many things that I expected when I decided to train to do a half ironman triathlon; long training sessions, pre-dawn wake-ups, a sore body, and falling asleep exhausted at night. I certainly did not expect to find a lump that would lead me on a completely different journey. I first found the lump one night after a weekend of having a stomach bug my daughter brought home. It was just above my pelvis on the right side. I thought it had something to do with the bug and ignored it, eager to train for my race. Nightly, I felt the lump, wondered what it was, but I was never worried.
My training was going great and I didn’t want an excuse to quit training.
After about six weeks I thought to mention it to my mom, a retired nurse. She thought it was a hernia from the training I was doing and encouraged me to have a physician look at it. Cancer never crossed her mind, it doesn’t run in our family and I felt great. She thought at worse I would have to have a hernia repaired and could probably still compete in the half ironman.
I went to see the physician the day after completing a 52 mile bike ride followed by an 11 mile run, my training was exactly where I wanted it to be at that point.
When I went to the doctor’s office, I intentionally avoided using the word “lump” or “tumor” to describe what I felt, after all, there was no chance it could be cancer.
The doctor gave me a pelvic exam and confirmed that she felt something and calmly left the room. So far, so good, I waited for her to come back to tell me I had a hernia. Instead she returned with her nurse who started asking if I was free the rest of the day and that she was ordering a CT and blood tests “stat”. There was no hernia diagnosis; I had the complete attention of my doctor and nurse while they figured out what the mass was.
At the end of the day with my blood tests and CT results my doctor asked me to come by her office so we could talk. Obviously it was time for me to acknowledge that this wasn’t a hernia.
She told me I most likely had ovarian cancer and referred me to a specialist.
Soon I came to find out how fortunate I was. Nobody feels a tumor attached to their ovary; it just doesn’t happen. Women don’t go in until they are sick, and then hopefully the cancer isn’t too far advanced, but often it is. So the fact that I found the lump and had no sickness from the cancer was extremely rare and very fortunate for me. When I met with my gynecologist, I asked him if I could still exercise. I’d realized that the half ironman was not going to happen,
but exercise is my stress relief, and it was clear that I was going to need a lot of stress relief.
That’s when he explained to me how vascular tumors are and if it ruptured I would bleed out on the spot. I thought about all the swimming, biking, and running I’d been doing. I felt blessed that I was still standing. My surgery was scheduled as soon as possible and all I could think about was getting rid of the tumor before something awful happened.
In order to enjoy endurance sports, or any sport where pain is routine,
you have to be able to accept that your body is going to scream for you to quit well before the race is over and you just have to endure the pain.
You also can’t spend time dwelling on how hard the training is, you just have to get down to business, and again, accept the pain that comes with achieving your goals. I think this above all helped me get through after the surgery and during chemotherapy. I was up a few hours after my surgery, with 43 staples in my stomach in excruciating pain, taking my first steps back to recovery at my mom and Will’s encouragement. I went for walks several times a day, regardless of how I felt, so that I could expedite my recovery. I was in training again, but this time I was training so that my body would be prepared for the upcoming chemotherapy.
My dedication to endurance sports also helped me immensely during chemotherapy. Before chemo started I was released to run again, provided I did not run too hard or too fast. I soon found out that between the Florida summer and chemo, running far or fast wasn’t even an option. Regardless, it was wonderful to have my first love by my side while I went through chemo.
In a sense chemo was a race of its own.
In a race you suffer so that at the end you feel alive and exhilarated so much so that all the suffering to get to the end was worth it. At the end of chemo, I was alive, but to get to the end my hair fell out, I got sores inside my mouth, food tasted like metal, I was in quarantine for one out of three weeks between treatment so that I didn’t get an infection, I went in for almost daily shots to keep my white blood cell count above 0, and I got progressively tired so that by the end it hurt to keep my eyes open the weekend after a chemo treatment and I didn’t want to get out of bed. I probably would not have gotten out of bed were it not for my husband and daughter there to smile at me when I didn’t feel like smiling and make me laugh when I wanted to hide away in my bedroom. At the end of chemo I was exhausted and run down, but most importantly
I was alive and that made it all worth it.