Take Charge

Dawn's Story

October 29, 2015


I stumbled into triathlon in 2010 and was immediately hooked. Having never been an athlete, I surprised myself with how I took to the sport and found immense joy and happiness in everything related to it – the people, the training, the lifestyle, and the medals. I also found a sense of purpose and accomplishment within myself. On Nov. 2, 2013 I completed Ironman Florida in 13:31:51 – my most rewarding and difficult accomplishment to date. (An ironman is 2.4 miles of swimming, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2 run.) Little did I know that endeavor would be a walk in the park.

My symptoms started in February 2014; a dull ache in my right scapular region. I had just been dealt a devastating blow to my marriage and chalked it up to intense heartache. Over the next few months, the ache remained and hurt whenever I lifted my arm over my head. I had never hurt in that region before so I brushed it off to circumstance.

By the end of April, I had to make some changes. I picked a town in Florida to move to (Port Richey), packed up my family of pets and said goodbye to my husband in South Carolina. I was starting over all alone but determined to pick up the pieces.

Within days of arriving in Port Richey, I joined a running group to try and return to a normal lifestyle for me. Pretty soon, I started with a triathlon group as well. Spending time with likeminded people certainly helped with my mindset and it was because of this group that I met a man, John, who I immediately connected with. We started logging some pretty significant training miles together, pushing each other to the limits and having the most wonderful time doing it. Training time lead to other time and it was soon clear that I had found someone very, very special.

By September I was in the best shape of my life. I was setting personal bests in sprint triathlons and 5K road races. I was having a ball with John and loving life. Things weren’t just looking up, they WERE up. But my symptoms weren’t something I could ignore any longer. A triathlete is used to pushing through a level of pain, to get over the hurt in order to reach the sweet spot. But I couldn’t move past this hurt. The dull ache had turned into sharp pains lasting most of the day. The pain moved from the scapular region to the side shoulder to the front of my chest over the course of a month or so. I would wake up screaming in pain, gasping for breath. Sneezing brought me to tears. A jerk of my arm or a push to my back would result in me bowing down in pain. I would have to hold my right arm as if in a sling as the weight of just letting it dangle hurt my whole chest. I began to get nauseas after running. How could I be this physically fit, but yet feel so horrible? I kept praying it was just an injury, rather than an illness. As much as I hated for the racing season to end, I was looking forward to the break. My last race was on Oct. 10, 2014 – a 9-mile train run. I finished in a respectable time and really enjoyed the run. I later found out that I did it with my right lung 80 percent filled with fluid.

Around mid-September I finally decided to seek treatment. On account of the chest pain, I had a full cardiac workup which showed nothing other than I had a healthy heart. A chest X-ray showed nothing as well. A few weeks later I started physical therapy on the chance it was an injury. On the second session, the technician was quite insistent that I see an orthopedic doctor and even made arrangements for me to see a friend of his that day, on a semi urgent basis. Upon seeing that doctor for just a consultation, he was just as insistent that I have a CT scan done. Although insistent, I thought this was completely random. I do not remember his exact orders for why I should have the CT done, other than that I should have it done at a place that I would feel comfortable staying at for a few days if they found anything. I headed to Trinity Hospital for the CT. It was not long after the scans were done that the radiologist came and said that he advised I go to the ER. The CT had shown something on my liver.

 On Oct. 14, 2014 an internal medicine doctor assigned to me from the ER told me she was admitting me to rule out cancer. I was alone at the time, John had not yet made it to the hospital. I called my parents and let them know I was being admitted and it did not look good. I felt calm at the time; I felt strong enough to beat anything that was going to be thrown my way.

I was diagnosed with stage IV adenocarcinoma lung cancer that spread to the liver and spine. My lungs, the powerhouse of my athletic ability, had turned on me.  I was stunned, shocked and now scared. I had never smoked in my life – it all seemed like a cruel joke.  But I vowed to remain strong in front of my parents and John during the hospital stay. I told myself I could fall apart at home. I had to have a thoracentesis and a chest tube. I had a plethora of CT’s and PET scans, chest X-rays, blood tests. The pain was very intense and I do not remember much of my two week hospital stay because of the medications. 

During the weeks after my stay, the support from friends and family was amazing. I had never felt so much love or support in my life. John went above and beyond to help me recuperate and stay positive. I was very tired all the time, I had no energy, I had lost a significant amount of weight and I was very, very sad. I tried to rely on triathlon training and just make it to the next buoy, the next mile whatever that mile may bring. I was reminded daily that if I could do an Ironman, I could do this, that I was stronger than I thought. My spirituality rose sky high, however, my core was shattered. It was clear that all roads had lead me to this point. However, I felt my life was ending.

We rallied hard to get into Moffitt. I saw Dr. Eric Haura and both John and I immediately liked him – he was a triathlete!! I felt comfortable being with someone who knew my background of being a fighter and someone who was undoubtedly analytical and I wanted him to assure me I could get back to where I was athletically. He started genetic testing procedures to see if he could isolate the cancer cell and in the meantime I started on a six-week chemo round in November; going once every three weeks. I hated every second of it – I would have one good week and one/two very bad weeks. In February I was cleared to start taking a daily chemo pill, Zalkoryie. I felt in much more control with this method of treatment.

I also started exercising again. I am a firm believer in the power of exercise – for the mind, body and soul. I was an athlete and I wasn’t going to let lung cancer stop me. Especially if I can motivate someone else to get moving. I resumed all disciplines as best as I could and tried to rebuild all the muscle I had lost. I did a comeback triathlon with the St. Anthony’s sprint distance in May. Although my performance was nothing like in the past, I was proud I completed it.

However, by May the pill had stopped working and my tumors were growing again. I started on the next version of a chemo pill, Zykadia.  This pill had some wonderful reviews and many people had reported going years before losing resistance to it. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. In September of this year, I found out my body is resisting this pill as well and my tumors are growing again. More genetic testing is being done and I will hopefully start a new treatment plan.

It is hard for me to explain what cancer has done to me. I realize my blessings are abundant, however I recognize on a daily basis all that is now gone. Though I am working hard to regain my athletic ability and once again feel that joy, I fear that part of my life is something I will never have back. I have lost my zest for life and bubbly personality; in its place are worries about debt, needles, pills and an early death. I feel guilty for John having to deal with my nausea and treatment plan rather than planning vacations or logging training miles together. Cancer knows no boundaries or rules; it doesn’t discriminate and it doesn’t play fairly.  I, however, have a triathlete brain to get me through this.  A triathlete doesn’t stop when the racing gets ugly – they keep going, they push through, they finish.