The diagnosis, of course, was shocking: cervical cancer.
I’ll miss a whole season of training was Rachel Johnson’s first thought.
Not Rachel, her new husband Eric thought. She’s too careful about her diet and exercise, befitting an Ironman triathlete.
“I’m someone who’s done Ironman and exercise,” he said, “and she put me to shame. … It’s so much a part of her life.”
And now so is cancer, which has dominated their lives for the last year but will take a back seat when they both tackle Ironman Canada in Penticton, British Columbia, on Aug. 26, not 18 months after the diagnosis.
“There are other stellar patients out there but she’s my first in nine years in Spokane to compete in an Ironman,” Rachel’s oncologist, Dr. Melanie Bergman of Cancer Care Northwest, said. “I’d love to be there and cheer for her. That would be awesome.”
Before cancer, Rachel and Eric Johnson could stand alone as passionate triathletes with a crazy love story.
But even before that there was Eric’s near-death illness 10 years after he graduated from Central Valley in 1982, an experience that changed his life and put this story in motion.
After playing tennis and soccer for the Bears, Eric Johnson went to Washington State and then Idaho, graduating as a fisheries biologist.
He was living a pretty normal life until he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
“I was in pretty critical condition,” he admitted.
He was 27 and it was recommended he have his colon removed, an option he flatly rejected. He dwindled to 120 pounds when he tried acupuncture, which had immediate positive results. He has maintained good health the last 20 years with exercise, diet and minimizing stress.
It was while he was hospitalized that he saw an Ironman.
“Back then we didn’t have bucket lists,” he said, “but that was one thing I thought would be neat to do because I loved being active. It was a changing point in my life. It refocused me.”
Within two years he had finished the local Troika Triathlon.
“I had never done any endurance activities,” he said. “I had never run anything longer than Bloomsday. To go run 13 miles was a great feeling of accomplishment.”
His girlfriend tried but didn’t have a passion for the things he began doing and that relationship ended. Later he left his corporate job, he said, because he truly hated to write reports.
In 1999 Eric went to Ironman Canada with the intention of signing up for the next one. He missed the deadline, putting Ironman on the backburner until it arrived in Coeur d’Alene in 2003.
However that weekend was already committed to Hoopfest as a volunteer. The next year he volunteered in CdA and signed up for the 2005 event, when he was 41, the first of his half-dozen finishes.
Rachel Johnson wasn’t particularly active growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, until she turned 18.
“It was vanity,” she said. “I realized I was out of shape.”
Marathons were the big thing but she was told, after suffering a broken back in a 2004 car accident, she might never run again.
She ran the Vancouver Marathon at the end of the year.
Over time her interest became triathlons, but that had a toll. By the time she was 32, her eight-year marriage ended.
She signed up for the 2008 Ironman Canada a year in advance. While on Facebook in December 2007, she saw an advertisement for fitness singles. On a whim she filled out the profile.
The next day she had 30 emails and decided to check them out. That’s when she found out it cost $30. Curious, she reluctantly paid and a couple of weeks later Eric Johnson, looking to meet someone with the same athletic interests, turned up in her email.
“How can you have chemistry just by reading words on a screen?” Rachel asked. “And I did. It was instant. It was kind of cool. He said he was doing Canada in 2008, too.”
In April of 2010, they ran a half-marathon on Bainbridge Island. Eric proposed. He carried the ring in his hydration pack, waiting for the right time.
Busy preparing for the CdA Ironman, they decided to volunteer for the World Championship in Hawaii in October and get married the day after, Oct. 10.
It may sound romantic and simple but it was only romantic.
Rachel, a Canadian citizen, applied for a visa in May but it hadn’t been granted and the wedding rapidly approached.
“I’d talk to my sisters (Mia and Heidi) when I was discouraged and they would keep my spirits up,” Eric said. “It was a lot tougher on Rachel being in another country, not being around anybody. I had my family for support.”
The sisters suggested getting Sen. Patty Murray’s office involved and it helped. At the last possible moment, Rachel got a call and she rushed to a U.S. consulate in downtown Vancouver. She got the visa with 90 minutes to spare on a Friday afternoon. They left for Hawaii on Sunday.
The newlyweds returned on Oct. 17, settling in the south Spokane Valley. Soon Rachel was feeling “crappy” but blamed it on the stresses of a new marriage, living in a new country, their new business as distributors of auto detailing supplies and being dependent on a new family to get things done, like a new driver’s license.
Upon Eric’s insistence she finally went to a doctor in March and was told results of a physical would be ready in 10 days. The doctor called in four, March 26.
“She told me, but I knew,” Rachel said.
Next came a meeting with Bergman, with Eric’s mom taking notes for her numb daughter-in-law.
“It was pretty advanced locally,” Dr. Bergman said, “Stage 1B2. Very serious.”
“Of course you worry about your life,” Rachel said. “I was scared but the whole time I was thinking, ‘I’m missing an entire training season.’ The thing is, you just want to get back to your life. I was an athlete, I eat well, I take care of myself. This is a blow to your ego.”
That’s understandable, Bergman said, because “everybody has their priorities in life … cancer is an unplanned visitor.”
Surgery, a radical hysterectomy, was May 2.
“I basically quit training, did the minimum with the new business,” Eric said. “She was the most important thing.
“All through it she did everything right, everything the doctor told her to do. The worse was she’d go on the computer and so much of what’s on the internet is worst-case. I kept telling her to turn off the damn computer.”
Chemotherapy started the Thursday after Ironman Coeur d’Alene.
That’s the amazing part of Rachel’s story, Bergman said. In addition to a significant surgery she had to go through aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, which didn’t end until Aug. 12.
Through it all, Rachel remained as active as possible.
“I’m the perfect doctor for Rachel,” added Bergman, an avid cyclist. “I believe exercise allows people to get through chemotherapy better, with more energy. There’s evidence to support that.
“I advocate for my patients to be active to the point I nag the couch potatoes, nicely.”
And the prognosis is good.
“She is currently in remission with no evidence of the disease,” the doctor said. “It’s a guarded diagnosis; we’re waiting to see what happens in the next three or four years.
“It’s not a miracle,” Bergman added, “that’s what we do.”
Now Rachel is on track to do an Ironman that is exactly two weeks after the one-year anniversary of her final chemo treatment. She has also added a tattoo of flying birds signifying her journey with Eric interwoven with a survivor ribbon.
“I’m definitely behind her,” Eric said. “If she didn’t have Ironman, she’d find something else. Ironman is something we can do together. The toughest thing for me is getting her to ease into it. It’s given her a goal, a focus.”
Rachel, who helps Eric with the business and is a full-time student at Community Colleges of Spokane in addition to training, has high expectations but they don’t necessarily include a clock.
“I’m going to be better, stronger and faster,” she said. “When I was training before I would say to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m out here doing this.’ Now I say, ‘I’m glad I’m out here and not taking chemo.’
“I have a strength, physically and mentally, I didn’t have before. There are so many more blessings that have come from this than the hardship. I just want to give people hope.”
You can reach Dave Trimmer at firstname.lastname@example.org