Cancer diagnosis doesn't keep Columbia triathlete from reaching her goal

Friday, October 7, 2011 | 2:27 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Most of us aren't born athletes, the kind of people blessed with the right bodies and innate abilities. For us, succeeding in a sport means taking control of the factors that are stacked against us.

But some have more to overcome than others.

Meet Debi Hake.

Hake was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2010. She was 31 at the time, young enough that the threat of breast cancer was only a blip on her radar. According to the American Cancer Society, two out of three invasive cancers are found in women age 55 and older. She didn't have the kind of family history — a mother, sister or maternal grandmother with breast cancer — that would have raised a red flag.

But during a routine checkup with her gynecologist, there it was: a lump.

Hake said she'd been doing the monthly self-checkups at home, though she added she might not have been as thorough as she could have been. But even after her doctor expressed concern over it, the lump was hard for her to detect herself.

"It was in pretty deep. Once he told me what he thought it was, I could kind of feel it," Hake said.

So she went to Boone Hospital Center's Harris Breast Center for a mammogram and ultrasound. Upon seeing the films from her mammogram, the radiologist knew she had cancer. It would take a few more days for the biopsy to return the official result, but there it was.

Hake's hematologist prescribed four chemotherapy sessions, spaced every three weeks, to be followed by six weeks of radiation. Because of the staggered chemo schedule, Hake had time to recover before her next session.

"The first week was the really bad week, then I'd have an OK week, then a good week, then I was back to it all again," Hake said.

This meant Hake, a mother of two, would be able to stay active in her children's lives. It also provided an opportunity to take on her diagnosis by taking on a new challenge.

At least that's what her physical therapist, Jeff Bridges, a clinical assistant professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Missouri's School of Health Professions, saw.

"She's got a history of being an athlete and is one of those people who needs to push. She had a history of being a swimmer and a history of being a soccer player, so I knew she could run," Bridges said.

Bridges had worked with Hake a number of times over the years, and he knew just what to say to get Hake moving.

"He played to my weakness, which is if you tell me I can't do something, I'm probably going to prove you wrong," Hake said.

She had only finished her first chemo session when she started training for a triathlon with Bridges. There were three more sessions — and all the side effects that came with it: nausea, achiness and fatigue.

In the first week after a chemo session, Hake was unable to keep anything down. She said the fatigue was unlike any other "being tired" she had ever experienced.

"It wasn't normal tired, where I could take a nap," Hake said. "There was no energy left. You feel like you can't even take another step, let alone lift another weight. You walk into a grocery store, you feel like you need to lie down."

And sometimes she just plain hurt.

"They would give me a Neulasta shot to keep my white blood cell count up," she said. The shots "would make my entire body just ache. It was a tremendous pain," Hake said.

Things didn't necessarily get easier when she started her radiation treatments, either. Hake said she still felt zapped energy-wise, and she was badly burned in her underarm, which limited her range of motion.

Because of the effects the chemo and radiation had on her body, Bridges said they took a more cautious approach to training. Bridges had Hake start with lighter exercises and gauge whether she thought she could do more or needed to slow down.

"My approach isn't the whole 'Biggest Loser' thing," Bridges said. "Sometimes it was 'The biggest thing you did today, Debi, was you got out of the house and you got here.'"

Still, that doesn't mean Bridges didn't push her.

"I call it friendly banter," Hake said. "If I was whining, he'd throw something back in my face. 'Suck it up, and deal with it.'"

They met at the Activity and Recreation Center two or three times a week. Hake said that when Bridges wasn't meeting her, he gave her a list of things to do. She said he "just didn't take no for an answer."

And, sometimes, it wasn't the side effects from her treatment that posed the biggest hurdles.

It had been a while since she was in the kind of shape one would hope to be in before a triathlon. On top of all that, she was terrified of bicycles, which meant the biggest stretch of her triathlon would be the least enjoyable. Hake said she had a bad biking accident when she was little. It was so bad that she didn't get on a bike again until her training.

"You're talking probably 20 years," Hake said.

Although she had signed up for the TriZou Triathlon — a quarter-mile swim, a 15-mile bicycle ride and a 3-mile run — she was devising a way to avoid actually competing.

"My thinking was, 'I may not actually end up doing a triathlon, but I could train to do it,'" Hake said.

Still, the big day — May 2 — was drawing nearer, and Hake and Bridges continued to work toward it.

Things were going smoothly, but a week before the race, Hake had a breakdown. She said Bridges didn'ttake her out on the hills she was supposed to ride on during the triathlon until the week before.

The route had a number of steep hills, and she was unable to ride to the top of some of them. To Hake, not being able to ride the whole route was the same as failing the whole route, and she wanted to back out.

But the day before the triathlon, she had a change of heart. Maybe she couldn't be the best in the race, but she could be her best.

"I did have to walk part of it, but it wasn't the end of the world," Hake said.

And the finish line came soon enough.

"I was bawling my eyes out," Hake said. "It was such a big moment for me, not because of the triathlon but because I can push through something as big as cancer."

Two weeks after she crossed that finish line, she crossed another finish line of sorts: She got word that she was officially cancer-free.

But for Hake, the ride has only just begun. She's still at the gym five days a week, gearing up for her next triathlon.

"I'm trying to stick with it," Hake said.

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