Meet Juliette. She became the next recipient of the Send It Foundation’s VY NGUYEN KOLLER GRANT and we quickly became friends shortly after. We have never met in person but text daily. We both have big goals and live the “send it” mentality. This past Wednesday, March 24th, was her five year anniversary of her cancer diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer. I asked her to share how cancer has made her better. I love her “go out and do it” personality and inspires me to do the same. We are both part of the crappy cancer club but choose to not let us limit us.
“Were you an athlete before your…um….cancer?” Coach Alan asked this morning, apprehensively.
“Hmmm…? I don’t think so, no.” I puffed between paddle strokes. “I gymmed a lot; dance classes mostly, a little swimming.”
“It’s like it awoke something in you, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess it did.”
Nothing makes you want to live life to the fullest like almost dying. Waiting for retirement to live out your fantasy life no longer feels like a viable option. When tomorrow isn’t promised, you quickly learn how to live in the now and carpe the mother f****** diem.
Five years ago this week, my life took a drastic turn. At the fresh age of 34 I got diagnosed with breast cancer. My world suddenly became very small. Chemo was a tiny world of nos. No booze, no coffee, no sushi, no berries, no salad. No hugging toddlers, don’t go to the store during peak hours, avoid crowds, don’t shave your legs, don’t use tampons. Surgery followed with more – no strenuous activity, no heavy lifting, no vigorous exercise, no driving. I couldn’t even use my arms or wipe my own peach. No. Independence.
I made a mental bucket list of things I would do if Cancer didn’t kill me. I’d eat all the sush’, drink all the beers, live the salad life, and say yes to anything I felt like when I felt like it. (Hugging toddlers did NOT make that list). I’d live the best extra credit life I could.
Post treatment I took up running. I took up mountain biking. I took up gymming. I went to grad school. I tried paragliding, and skydiving, and zip lining. And three weeks ago I took up kayaking. I ran 5ks, then 10ks, then half marathons. A fire was burning deep inside that wanted to go further, faster, harder. I pushed harder than I’d ever pushed before, because the limits I thought existed turned out to be mere suggestions. Things I’d once thought painful, like running so hard you can’t catch your breath or the early burning in your muscles during a wicked set of reps, suddenly all felt like unfortunate discomforts; challenges to be overcome. Treatments and surgeries pushed my body further than I knew it could go. I experienced a level of pain I never knew a human body could endure. Because of those experiences, digging deep inside for the last remaining shreds of energy needed to pass the next runner or make it to the finish line no longer felt unrealistic. A new world opened up for me. Cancer changed and molded me into someone I didn’t know I could become.
Running became the best place to quiet my mind and restore my energy after a long day, pushing my miles, pushing my body, finding my zen. Mountain biking became a way to feel alive and youthful, testing my fears and getting me outside to play. This year I said yes to a new challenge, one that would combine my two favorite sports and force me to learn a couple more – a race called The Big Hurt. 16 miles of mountain biking, 3 miles of kayaking, 30 miles of road cycling, followed by a 10k run. 55 miles of epic! (I’ve never even come close to exercising for that long).
Cancer changed me, but it also it put amazing people in my life too. I have gained fearless friends in survivors who value living the way I do and athletes who push hard because that’s what athletes do. I am overwhelmed at the amount of community support I have received since I took on this new challenge. The Send It Foundation generously supported my crazy FOMO with the Vy Nguyen Koller grant. The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team provided me with membership, coaching and use of their boats. Coach Jess Fitness has supported me through daily virtual fitness sessions. Peninsula Adventure Sports provided a scholarship to cover my race registration dues. I also have an exciting mountain bike coach in the queue.
Would I do it all again if I had a choice? Hard no. But I’m grateful for the opportunities and perspective cancer has given me.
“Don’t tiptoe through life, only to make it to death safely.” – Xan Harwood-Karlik (1985-2019)
Please follow my journey on Instragram: @runner.girl.kern
When I find the time to sit still, I will try to blog about my training adventure and race at Juliettesbighurt.wordpress.com.