July 7, 2011 in Washington Voices

Cancer survivor prepares for first triathlon

Jill Barville jbarville@msn.com
J. Rayniak photo

Two year colon cancer survivor Susie Leonard-Weller is celebrating life and challenging herself post-colostomy by participating in her first triathlon-the Valley Girl Triathlon. J.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The day before Thanksgiving 2006, Susie Leonard Weller had a colonoscopy to check out a few troubling symptoms. When she woke up to the words “colorectal cancer” she was stunned but optimistic.

“I’m thinking, ‘No problem. Cut the tumor out, take a breather during Christmas break,’ ” said Weller, an educator with Community Colleges of Spokane. But the stage 3 cancer had crossed the uterine wall, requiring what Weller calls the cancer triathlon – radiate, medicate, operate. She began the biggest endurance event of her life.

This Sunday, Weller will celebrate her victory over cancer and living fully post-colostomy by competing in the Valley Girl Triathlon in Liberty Lake. She’ll likely use some of the lessons she learned battling cancer to tackle the physical challenge of a the women-only sprint distance triathlon.

“With the cancer, it was the toughest year physically in terms of pain,” said Weller, describing how she kept having to surrender what she couldn’t control. “It’s part of living the Serenity Prayer on a daily basis – the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

During treatment she applied that philosophy through three surgeries, 42 days of chemotherapy and daily radiation, which stretched her mental and physical stamina. The philosophy also helped while training for the Valley Girl, which consists of a swim of a third of a mile, a 12-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run.

“Having the endurance to take a breath and accept what is, that has been a helpful life tool,” Weller said. “Even if I have to walk, that’s OK. I’m getting through this.”

With lasting side-effects of the cancer treatment, Weller expects to walk the “run” portion because chemotherapy left her with neuropathy in both feet. They’re numb and drop or shuffle when she walks. “I used to be a very fast walker before,” she said. “My family has noticed I’m barely keeping up with them.”

Though the neuropathy isn’t curable, her doctor recommended exercise to improve circulation. “Any kind of exercise and stimulation to the feet and getting the blood flowing is helpful,” Weller said.

And because Weller also wanted to get in better shape, she knew that signing up for the triathlon would provide the motivation she needed to follow her doctor’s advice.

“I really wanted to feel better and like I had more energy and stamina,” said Weller, explaining that she knew she should exercise more but wasn’t doing it. “If I paid the registration for the triathlon, that would be incentive for me because I paid the money. And it’s a bucket list kind of event.”

As with her cancer triathlon, Weller said she appreciated her husband’s encouragement through the training, especially on days she didn’t feel like it. “My husband has been a great support. Especially when I’m feeling like a slug, he says, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

She’s also cherished his support post-colostomy. “With my husband in particular, to be loved poop and all, is quite a gift,” she said.

During treatment Weller had an ileostomy – a surgical opening constructed by bringing the loop of the small intestine out onto the surface of the skin – for six weeks, with the expectation it would be temporary. Unfortunately, radiation damaged the surrounding tissue and the reconnection surgeries didn’t return normal bowel function, even after months of recovery.

“On a hike I had to stop three times in an hour. This was not a lifestyle that was livable for me,” she said, explaining that she opted to get a permanent colostomy in 2009. “I did what I needed to do to create a life that works for me and that has joy.”

Emotionally, the permanent colostomy was as difficult as battling cancer, Weller said. “I was facing cancer and the reality of death. I wasn’t afraid of dying but was afraid of living with this,” she said.

That’s where attending, then facilitating, an ostomy support group helped.

“There was a lot of support during cancer treatment, but when you’re done with treatment you’re done. People don’t realize, for the rest of your life you’re living with this every day. It’s important to have that ongoing support,” Weller said.

“It was encouraging to hear practical and helpful hints and be inspired by people who were living well with a challenge.”

And by competing in the triathlon, Weller hopes she can, in turn, inspire others. “I’m getting in better shape to do hikes with family and friends and keep up. Who would have thought that a colostomy would give me a higher quality of life? But it is in terms of flexibility and not having to stop all the time. Others have inspired me. I want to be encouragement to them.”

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