7 years ago I was wrapping-up my most decorated endurance race season at the age of 41. I stood on the podium -- age group or women’s overall -- at virtually every race I entered...sprint and olympic distance duathlons, gravel road races with my husband, Derek, on our tandem bike, and a 5k. The 5k was a personal record effort after a decade as a runner. So altered bowel habits with some bleeding didn’t arouse any suspicions, especially with the presence of hemorrhoids. I was far too fit and healthy to have anything seriously wrong with me. In the ensuing years I have read countless similar stories from my fellow <50 set.
Even a year-and-a-half later, when my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer, I was able to convince myself that I was fine. Again, aside from bowel symptoms, I was the picture of health for a 42 year old woman. My dad passed-away 6 weeks after his diagnosis. He’d been a smoker and had suffered a stroke a decade or so prior. He wasn’t exceptionally active, didn’t eat a great diet, and had never had a colonoscopy. I assured myself that his diagnosis was entirely the result of carelessness with preventative care/screenings, poor diet, and his smoking history. And this is what SO many respected medical resources STILL would have us believe.
Nearly 3 years after my symptoms started I saw a PA at my OB-gyn’s office for a routine exam. I was having tenesmus, hot flashes, dull abdominal pain, and suspected perimenopause. I was nearly 44 and had had endometriosis, fibroids, cysts, and adenomyosis for all of my reproductive life, so this seemed a likely explanation, courtesy of Occam’s Razor. My abdominal pain felt EXACTLY like the uterine cramps I'd known for decades. She asked about my family health/cancer history and I casually mentioned that I’d lost my dad to colorectal cancer. She thought it wise to schedule me for a colonoscopy, based-upon that information.
5 days after my 44th birthday I underwent my first colonoscopy. I was still groggy when the doctor who performed the scope informed me that I had a 10cm tumor in my high rectum. She believed it was cancer, but pathology needed to confirm.
The ensuing year is largely a blur. I underwent 8 rounds of FOLFOX, a month of chemoradiation, a few months of recovery, and LAR. I’d been formally diagnosed as stage 3, but later a small lung spot that disappeared with chemo reappeared and brought with it a friend in the same lobe. The larger spot was just big enough to biopsy and it was confirmed as a met. It was suspected that the smaller spot was, as well.
My lung surgeon gave the option of removing the larger spot and waiting on the smaller one, but since they were both in the same lobe, the most logical option seemed to remove the lobe, rather than endure a likely 2nd surgery.
Of course...post-surgical pathology determined the smaller spot was some benign bit of crud. Just my luck!
4 months to the day after my lobectomy I participated in my first post-treatment sprint duathlon. A couple of weeks after that I met up with a bunch of running friends for the Niagara Falls Half Marathon. I was in reasonably good fitness, but definitely MUCH slower than my pre-cancer self. I’d been training for longer-distance events when I learned of the spots in my lung. Chemo had made me super short of breath (on top of asthma). I recovered my lung function as I recovered from chemo, only to lose it again. I’ve regained a lot as my remaining 4 lobes have expanded to fill some of the space lost, but I still feel chronically out-of-shape, even though I’m relatively active.
This past July I finished my favorite Olympic distance duathlon for the first time since diagnosis and managed a 3rd place podium spot. Granted, only 5 of us toed-the-line. I was probably 20 minutes slower than the last time I raced this event...but the entire field was slower. I’ll likely never come closer to my fastest time at this event, but I definitely have room to improve and set new post-cancer personal records. I’ll still be happy just to be active and placing in my age group. As a nearly 50-something, that’s still a big damned deal.
There are things I no longer feel comfortable doing. I avoid things with high fall risk, like cyclocross racing (the freaky love child of road criterium cycling, mountain-biking, and cross-country running...while carrying a bike over obstacles), as pelvic radiation + menopause have left me with relatively fragile bones. And I don't recover from workouts and races as quickly as I used to, so my overall mileage is abbreviated. LARS forever adds additional challenges to training and early race mornings, too. And I may never again ride my bike across the state of Michigan in a single day, but I'm still covering more miles on 2 wheels and a pair of running shoes than many of my peers who have not suffered any life-threatening setbacks. My motivation is more about quality of my fitness time and quantity of my years.
The long-term effects of cancer survival have definitely slowed me down (the premature menopause and aging certainly don't help), but a wise animated guy once said "We're Vikings...we have stubbornness issues." Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III's words have gotten me through a lot of literal and figurative crap in the past 4.5 years.