Triathlons not only helped this woman survive cancer, they helped cure another disease — a deep, hidden addiction—as well.
By Karen Newman
On March 18, 2008, I was fully immersed in training for the Triathlon Age-Group World Championships in Vancouver BC. I had qualified the year before and the race was just three short months away. Then came the call from the doctor with the diagnosis from a recent test: I had advanced, aggressive stage-three breast cancer.
“Chemo right away” was on the tip of every oncologists tongue. Racing was unimaginable—it would mean exposing myself to multiple germs. But something inside me just couldn’t let go of my dream. It was somehow vital. I needed to race to prove to myself, my children, my family and the world that I was alive, strong, a warrior. I would fight the killer and keep my slot.
It took three oncologists until I found one who was willing to take a chance on me. The one caveat was that my red and white blood cells could not drop into the danger zone.
Having the goal of racing during cancer treatment was a blessing. It kept me moving forward and showing everyone, including myself, that the impossible just might be possible. But at the time the one thing no one knew (not my clients, my husband, my children, my friends, my doctors) was that I was also struggling with bulimia
My first fall into the world of eating disorders happened as a child. I was dyslexic and bullied. I allowed the negative words of the world to sink deep into my soul. They changed me. I no longer dreamed of possibility. Each day I picked up more negative words until that was all I heard from the minute I woke up to the minute I lay my head on the pillow. “You are stupid, fat, ugly, a witch” and on and on.
I even developed my own words: “You are worthless, unloved and you might as well be dead.” Even though I studied dietetics at UVM, became a registered dietitian and even spoke out about eating disorders I could not control my own secret addiction. Just weeks before the diagnosis of cancer, I had reached rock bottom. I was a full-blown anorexic.
I no longer wanted to live.
I could no longer take standing in front of large audiences speaking about good nutrition while the taste of bile lingered on my tongue or bold-faced lying in front of my family about the missing box of waffles. I was done with the addiction that had stolen so much of my life. And at that point, death seemed a better alternative than the daily living hell I found myself in.
Cancer was in fact, the unlikely lifeline that I needed to change. It surprisingly sparked a will to live. Instinctively I knew two things: If I kept bulimia as my best friend, I would surely die. And that God was allowing me to go through the experience of cancer because he could see the other side.
Triathlon training was a wonderful respite from the pain and misery of chemo. And I was determined to break norms, rise up, and defeat the odds. It took everything I had. My body was weak from the toxic chemo and barfing all night long. But I refused to give power to the negative and instead reveled in small accomplishments like getting my feet off the bed.
I spoke encouraging words to myself for the first time in years and it made a huge difference. “Karen you are feeling terrific, you are strong, you can do it. Nothing is impossible and so on.” Our minds and attitudes are crucial to our ability to succeed and break limits.
My first race after chemo was a biathlon. Just minutes before the start of the race, I was throwing up in the bushes because of the chemo. But it didn’t matter as I focused on the pure joy of making it to the start line. High fiving my friends and fellow athletes boosted my confidence and joy. When the gun went off, I bolted to the front and pushed through the pain and the nausea. Again, I spoke encouraging, life-giving words. And I began to believe them. I placed fourth in my age division at that race and the seeds of triumph and possibility were planted.
As my body weakened with each progressive chemotherapy treatment, my mind rallied. And love continued to be deposited into my soul. My family, teammates, coaches, doctors, friends and God all loved me back to life.
Against all odds, I made it to the start of the Triathlon Age-Group World Championships in Vancouver days after my fourth chemotherapy treatment. When the gun when off the adrenaline rush trumped all the hardships.
It was the hardest race of my life. The weather was so bad that the officials had to cancel the swim after our wave went off. People were being pulled out of the water because of hypothermia. The dangerous waves added to the drama. My body was breaking down, but I refused to give up and somehow muscled my frozen shoulders through the icy water. Transition was a disaster because my fingers simply would not work, a combination of cold and chemo. On the bike, I nearly wiped out because hypothermia was settling in. Crossing the finish line second to last while the world and all my friends waited and cheered was glorious. It remains one of my greatest athletic accomplishments.
Triathlon remains an enormous blessing in my life. I went on to stand on the podium at a World Championship race in 2012, this time not second to last, but second in the world. This year I am representing the USA at the Triathlon Age-Group World Championships in Cozumel, Mexico.
Trials are often opportunities to grow, to transform and to discover gifts. Don’t be afraid of them. Words are powerful. They can shatter your world or empower you. My three words? Go for it.
In her new book, “Just Three Words,” world-class triathlete and registered dietitian from South Burlington, Karen Newman writes about overcoming cancer and beating bulimia. Learn more about Karen and her book at www.thekarennewman.com