I was probably in the best shape of my life when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive ductal breast carcinoma on February 1, 2007. I had been mountain biking actively for 7 years and had also been a snowboard instructor. But in my case, the diagnosis wasn’t a shock. My dad had passed away in 1997 from two cancers; my mom had had two cancers when she passed away in 2008, and my brother had a brain tumor when he was 29.
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My doctors found cancer in my lymph nodes, so after my first lumpectomy, I did eight rounds of aggressive dose-dense chemotherapy and another lumpectomy that showed additional cancer, at which point I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. In early 2008, I started the first of 25 rounds of radiation, was put on hormone therapy, and have undergone a total of three surgeries for breast reconstruction, the first of which was a tissue transfer procedure that took 15 hours.
Yet through it all, I never got off my bike. I literally never stopped. I tried to mountain bike the day before each of my surgeries, and even when chemo would knock me out for 4 or 5 days, I’d try to bike at least twice a month.
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My brother had gone through something similar before me with his brain tumor, and he’s one of the strongest athletes I know. His experience and intense surgeries had motivated him to stay in shape to recover from some of the damage from the surgery. He’s an avid mountain biker and skier, and that was motivational for me when I got sick. Basically, I knew that I was going to feel like crap. And I could either feel like crap sitting in front of TV or feel like crap riding my bike in the mountains.
Ride your way lean!
Anyone who has been through illness knows that it really does change your friendships—the ones that have a strong base just get stronger and the casual ones slip away. With me, I was lucky. I realized I had a strong group of friends. I’ve been mountain biking with a big group for 10 years now, and they had to adjust their pace to wait for me as I climbed hills. But in one way, the summer going through chemo was one of the most fun and joyful because we really just enjoyed one another’s company, and let go of ego and competition.
So much of your life changes when you have cancer. If you can maintain normalcy and do what you love, there’s less of a sense of cancer taking over your life.
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Still, the reality is, I’m not fitter than I was. Cancer and the treatment have taken a toll on my body. I’m in the worst shape of my life and still going through treatment. Yes, it’s a struggle and yes, it’s a pain. Even though biking is harder, I’m so happy that I can still race and ride, and I have worked hard to let go of the ego piece. I’m not the fastest or the strongest, but I would bet that I’m having more fun.
—Marika Holmgren is an event producer for progressive nonprofit organizations. She is a member and the team leader of Team LUNA Chix’s Bay Area bike team.