Support breast cancer research during the Mid-Missouri Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on Sept. 18.
The week before the triathlon, Debi Hake was having second thoughts.
It was early May of 2011. In just days, Debi faced a quarter-mile swim, 15 miles of biking and three miles of running.
It would be an intense athletic challenge for almost anyone, but even more so for Debi. She had just endured a long, painful battle with breast cancer.
The diagnosis had come almost one year earlier, and it was a complete shock. When the lump was discovered, she was married, with a seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. She ran a successful wedding planning business. And she was just 31 — a startlingly young age for a breast cancer patient.
“At my age, I figured I was too young to even worry about breast cancer,” said Debi, of Columbia. “Getting a mammogram wasn’t even on my radar for another eight years.”
Following the cancer discovery, and in the midst of debilitating chemotherapy, Debi surprised everyone when she announced she was going compete in the TriZou Triathlon that coming spring. She’d never attempted a triathlon before.
So she started training. She found her workouts to be incredibly difficult, but also therapeutic.
A year after her diagnosis, the race was just days away. With all she had been through, she began to feel doubts about whether she could actually complete the triathlon. She’d already taken quite a beating over the last year.
But as race day approached, Debi decided she needed the triathlon. After everything, she owed it to herself.
“I was determined I was going to do this. I didn’t care what anybody else thought, I didn’t care if I came in dead last, I didn’t care what I looked like when I was doing it,” she said. “It was for me.”
The lump was discovered during a routine checkup.
Breast cancer is very rare in women in their 30s. Yet Debi’s physician, Dr. Michael Burks, MD, decided the lump deserved a closer look.
The next day, May 11, 2010, Debi went to Boone Hospital Center’s Harris Breast Center. She had a mammogram and an ultrasound. Later that day, a breast biopsy was performed.
Debi said she grew concerned when one test seemed to lead to another.
While the biopsy results wouldn’t come back with confirmation for two days, the diagnosis was already clear to the doctors who saw Debi’s breast scans. It was cancer.
Debi remembers her reaction when she heard the news.
“I was just sitting in the office, not crying, but trying to understand what it meant for me, where I should go from here and how it would affect the rest of my life,” she said. “It was very scary. With two little kids, you want to be there for high school graduations and marriages and everything else. My biggest fear was, ‘How long am I going to have to fight this?’ I didn’t want my kids to have to go through their entire life with a mom who’s always sick.”
Two weeks later, Debi met with Dr. Joe Muscato, MD, a hematologist and oncologist at Missouri Cancer Associates. Debi’s cancer was classified as stage 1, grade 3 infiltrating ductal carcinoma. It’s a common breast cancer in older women, but not women Debi’s age.
“It was out of the blue, no reason,” Dr. Muscato said. “She was 31 years old. This is not someone who ever expects to have breast cancer.”
Surgery was necessary to remove the cancer. Debi said she felt blessed only a lumpectomy was needed.
Weeks later, Debi began chemotherapy. Under Dr. Muscato’s care, she would have to undergo four rounds of chemo treatment, spaced three weeks apart. He acknowledged how difficult the treatments would be given all the responsibilities in Debi’s life.
“This is big deal stuff when you have a family and are trying to raise kids,” Dr. Muscato said. “To get the best cure rate, you have to do it with treatment in full doses on schedule. It’s not easy. So that’s the thing you worry about.”
And from the start, the chemo knocked Debi off her feet. She felt very nauseous and couldn’t keep food down. When she would finally started feeling better, it was time again to go back for more chemo and repeat the painful cycle.
As a sick mom, Debi was honest with her children about her cancer and what that meant. She told them it was a serious sickness, but that she was seeing doctors to get better.
She also wanted to show her kids there were some things about cancer she could control. Instead of losing her hair from the chemotherapy, Debi and her family held a shaving party and went bald together.
“I think it was good that my kids saw that cancer didn’t take my hair from me, we took it,” she said. “It was Mom’s decision, not cancer’s.”
The idea for the triathlon came from Debi’s longtime physical therapist, Jeff Bridges. At first, she said no thanks.
Jeff had suggested it during her chemotherapy. At the time, there were days she could barely get off the couch. A triathlon seemed impossible.
But he was persistent.
“I never had a triathlon on my radar, it was never even something I thought I could do,” Debi said. “It took a few weeks of him just harassing me. But finally, I said I would try.”
So Debi tentatively set her sights on the TriZou Triathlon held at the University of Missouri. The race would be on May 2, 2011.
Debi was still receiving chemotherapy when she began her training. She sent an email to Dr. Muscato explaining her decision to do the triathlon.
“We read it, and we were like, ‘What?’” Dr. Muscato said. “You see people who say they are going to do something like get healthy or exercise. A triathlon is a bit much. It was quite extraordinary.”
But physical activity is important during chemotherapy, and Dr. Muscato blessed Debi’s plan.
“People do better if they exercise — they feel better, they have less fatigue,” he said. “It’s hard because they don’t even feel like moving, but getting exercise is actually quite important.”
As expected, Debi’s first workouts were excruciating.
“It was horrible, it was a lot of tears, a lot of pain and a lot of, ‘I am not going to do this.’” She said. “I wanted to have a temper tantrum.”
Despite the hurt, Debi continued training. As she did, she gradually progressed through her cancer treatment as well. In August of 2010, she finished her chemotherapy and, in September, she began the final leg of her treatment, six weeks of radiation therapy.
As she looked forward to finishing her treatment, she realized her training for the TriZou had become an inspiration.
“That goal is really what got me through it all,” she said.
Then came race day.
Despite her earlier doubts, Debi said she felt strangely calm on May 2 — nearly a year after her diagnosis — knowing that one of the biggest challenges of her life still stood before her.
It was a cold morning. She checked in for the race, aired her bike tires and then waited with the hundreds of other racers for the first leg to begin. It was the quarter-mile swim, which took place at the MizzouRec building.
Once in the water, Debi found herself swimming fast and passing several other racers. Her time was better than expected as she left the pool.
Next came the 15-mile bike course. It was the portion of the race Debi dreaded the most. Though the ride was tough — especially the hills — she stuck with it. At times she had to get off the bike and push. But she would get back on, always feeling a new burst of energy to keep moving.
“I felt like the last person out there on the last lap with the bike,” Debi said. “I know I wasn’t, but it sure felt like it.”
When she finished the bike portion, all that was left was three miles of running. Debi started slow and gradually built up to her usual pace. The finish line was almost within reach.
Then, finally, as she ran past the MizzouRec building, the end was right before her eyes.
She crossed, and it was over.
The race, the months of training and the terrible fight with cancer — all of it was over.
“It was extremely emotional. It was all about finishing it,” Debi said. “I don’t like for things to get the better of me. Even if they get the better of me physically, I’m hell-bound they’re not going to get the better of me mentally. Finishing the triathlon marked the end of a really crappy year. I could put it behind me. I was done with that chapter.”
Days after the triathlon, Debi received news that the cancer treatment was successful — she was cancer-free.
But that didn’t necessarily mean a return to her old life.
She chose not to restart her stressful wedding planning business. Instead, she stays home with her two kids. She also makes and sells children’s toys and clothing through her small business called Addie & Andy. It’s a fun job and a creative outlet.
“I’m doing what makes me happy now,” she said. “It’s less stressful and better for my health.”
Dr. Muscato said it was gratifying to watch how Debi grew during her cancer battle.
“There are some patients who say, ‘I’m going to do something, I’m going to change myself for the better.’ And that’s what happened here,” Dr. Muscato said. “I would never want to wish cancer on anybody, but there can be some good things that come out of it. For her, this was an extremely positive change.”
As for other women in their 30s, Dr. Muscato said that breast cancer at that age is quite rare. However, if a woman feels a lump that doesn’t go away after an extended period of time, or if she notices the lump becoming larger, she should have it examined.
From her experiences, Debi’s advice for other cancer patients — and everyone else — is to get exercise and stay strong.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of staying physically active. It sounds silly, but I think mentally and emotionally, that did the most for me. I would not be where I am today,” she said. “I would not be nearly as strong if I hadn’t kept working and kept going.”
And she’s still going — triathlon number two is already on her calendar.