The gun went off signifying the start of the five-mile road race. It was last Mother’s Day weekend, 2016, and for a moment, I could not move. A pain in my back, more devastating than anything I had ever felt, held me back but I pushed past it. As a breast cancer survivor and world- class triathlete with a slot to the 2016 Age- Group ITU World Triathlon Championships in Cozumel, Mexico, I was used to pain. Nothing was going to stop me.
Everyone shot past me; including my husband of 25 years. My body wasn’t cooperating. I wasn’t used to being in last place. Still, quitting wasn’t an option. I’d overcome “insurmountable challenges” numerous times in my life through sheer determination. I would finish no matter what.
My pace slowed until eventually I could only walk. Each step was excruciatingly painful, but I put on a happy face, telling everyone I was fine. After beating breast cancer and then rising to the top in triathlon competition, even breaking a world record, I’d become the “overcomer.”
And my book about that experience, Just Three Words, had recently been published and was healing and inspiring thousands. How could I admit something was wrong, when so many people looked up to me?
While walking the final miles of the Mother’s Day race, the heat was penetrating my skin. The water stands had been taken away and no one else was left on the course. Now, I worried I might collapse on the deserted country road. I could no longer hide the pain, fear and doubt. The stored- up tears burst forth. I lifted up a desperate prayer to God, feeling defeated.
Three and a half years of my life had been devoted to writing my book and becoming an inspirational speaker. I’d sacrificed everything: family, friends, training, me-time. And now my dreams were being realized. Just days before, I’d stood in a packed room as the keynote speaker at a prestigious luncheon. The standing ovation went on for minutes. I was living on purpose, healing thousands. I thought I’d made it.
Another shooting pain nearly brought me to my knees. Why now? Why this?
As I cringed, I heard a whisper telling me not to lose hope; that I had the heart of champion. It gave me the strength to make it to the finish line, where I collapsed. My husband took me straight to the emergency room.
It was there, on Mother’s Day Weekend, that I was told I had a compound fracture in my L5 vertebrae, due to metastatic Stage-4 cancer in the bones of my spine and pelvis.
I didn’t cry then. It wasn’t until I left the hospital that I wailed, not for me, but for my children. The thought of having to tell them, having them go through this again with me, was gutting.
Two days later, I gathered our three boys in my arms and told them. And then I told the world: in person, on Facebook, in my blog. No more hiding, shame, or lies. I’d spent too many years living in darkness, afraid to be vulnerable or seek help for my eating disorder. I had believed the lie that if I told anyone, I would lose everything.
Cancer helped me courageously speak my truth, break free, be vulnerable. From that place of freedom, love poured in. It changed my life, giving me strength and courage to carry on. The response has helped me see that nothing is too great to conquer. Love wins.
As I looked at our boys, the warrior inside me arose. I told everyone that I was going to race at the age-group World Championships just four months away. The dream seemed impossible. But I had learned through my life that nothing is impossible.
For two months, I could not put on my own pants or socks, could not sit. But I did not give up on my dream of competing or beating cancer. Miraculously after radiation, thousands of prayers, and thanks to my unabashed belief in my body’s ability to heal, there is now no sign of cancer in my spine and the tumors in my pelvis shrank significantly.
On September 14th, tears flooded my eyes as I put on my uniform and made my way to the start of the Aquathon (run/swim/ run) in Cozumel, Mexico. My husband kissed me and was cheering loudly when the guns went off. This time, there was no pain— only awe and joy. When the announcer said I placed fourth in the world in my age group, I raised my hands and thanked God. I had chased my impossible dream and caught it. Later that night, my teammates gave me the honor of carrying the U.S. flag in the Parade of Nations.
I carried it high and victoriously.
The next day I raced in the sprint triathlon on a mountain bike, smiling and knowing that dreams really do come true.
The words you speak and believe are powerful. Don’t believe the negative ones. Instead, consciously cling to those that bring life, and gift encouragement freely.
Cancer was the wake-up call I needed to live life differently. If you are facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge, do not give up.
Adversity can be a blessing if we change our perspective and fully embrace the lessons, gifts and love that are so readily available for each of us. I now clearly see God’s mighty hand working everything, once again, for good.
Nothing is impossible, and miracles abound. Dare to courageously believe that the best is yet to come.