When 45-year-old Paula Tomlinson was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in late 2003, the prognosis was not good.
Studies have shown that anywhere from one-third to one-half of Stage III diagnoses don’t survive.
Even facing the possibility that she may not live to see her 50th birthday, she was able to remain strong-willed and optimistic throughout the ordeal, as she knew her cancer could be beaten.
“When you’re looking at the potential (of death) as being as bad as 50-50, it’s not like you’re going into a surgery and you might not be alive the next day,” Tomlinson said. “I felt like we had a little bit of time to do the right things, and that’s when we started doing a lot of research and found out about nutrition, and there’s a lot of stuff about exercise. One of the few things we found that everybody agrees on, is that exercise can be beneficial.”
After she was diagnosed, Tomlinson, who is a software developer for Microsoft, sought a second opinion at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Care Alliance in Seattle. While there, she was told about “Team Survivor,” an extraordinary group of women who exercise together, go on outdoor expeditions and support each other in their fights against cancer.
According to her, being a part of a support group where she can share her experiences and relate to other women has made all the difference.
“Team Survivor was a better support group, because you’re coming together to do something, an activity, yet you’re surrounded by people that have had similar experiences,” Tomlinson explained. “You can ask questions, you can be lifting weights or something and say, ‘I’m getting nosebleeds a lot, did that happen to you? … And it’s the only place besides home where I didn’t wear a hat.”
After a successful lumpectomy, she began attending Survivor classes in Bellevue where she took up running, hiking, and “dragon boating,” an ancient Chinese sport similar to crew where teams paddle together in a long, narrow boat adorned with a dragon head and tail.
About five years removed from her original Stage III diagnosis, Tomlinson is healthy and says she is “in the best shape of her life.”
The Danskin Triathlon, the longest-running multi-sport series in the world, has been held in Seattle every summer for the past 16 years. It is a true test of a woman’s athletic ability. The event begins with a half-mile swim, continues with a 12-mile bike ride and concludes with a 5 kilometer — or three-mile — run. Tomlinson, who was deathly afraid of water, first participated in the triathlon in 2005 running the dry land portion as part of a team of women attempting the triathlon together.
The next year, however, she made up her mind to overcome her worst fear and attempt the Danskin solo.
“Learning how to swim was probably the hardest, scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Tomlinson admitted. “When you’re afraid of water and you learn as an adult — I worked so hard to learn how to swim.”
As she gained confidence in the pool, the seven-year Microsoft employee eventually joined other Team Survivor members in swimming practices at Lake Sammamish and Lake Washington, to simulate the freshwater environment of the Danskin.
“We try to get in small groups so you get used to getting pushed, bumped and swam over the top of,” she said.
Tomlinson said the folks at the Danskin “roll out the red carpet” for Team Survivor members, and she still vividly remembers the moment she crossed the finish line at the event in 2006, marking the first time she had completed a triathlon all by herself.
“Oh man, that was such a feeling,” Tomlinson said. “There were so many survivors there waiting … we are always high-fiving and encouraging each other along the course.”
GEARING UP FOR SUCCESS
In addition to working out on her own, Tomlinson often spends her lunch hour running at Marymoor Park. She also trains twice a week with Team Survivor in the months and weeks leading up to events like the Danskin.
“A lot of times we’ll do either running, biking or swimming, but as the season goes along we’ll do combinations like ‘bricks,’ which is bike-run, to (simulate) the triathlon,” she said.
Like any athlete, Tomlinson aims to improve herself each year at the Danskin. Although she accidentally dropped her time card in Lake Washington during the 2007 event, she aims to better her time of approximately two hours which she attained in 2006.
“I invested in a new bike this year, so I’m hoping my bike time will improve a little bit,” Tomlinson hopes. “I’ve been practicing the run. The run is my favorite leg. Last year it was cold and pouring rain, so we’ll see what the weather’s like.”
What about the opening event of the race that she has worked so hard to overcome?
“I don’t push the swim, I just get through it,” she said. “I’m happy that I can do it. I’m a really slow swimmer, but each year I get a little faster.”
But regardless of what her final time happens to be in the 2008 Danskin, Tomlinson appreciates the fact that she has not only beaten the odds after being diagnosed in the late stages of her cancer, but also met so many wonderful and supportive people that have kept her going in difficult times. She admits that she had lost some of her friends when they discovered she had cancer, one of the unfortunate consequences of being labeled as a “high-risk” group.
“One of the things that was inspiring to me was spending time with other cancer survivors. When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t know many people that had breast cancer,” Tomlinson recalled. “When you see it on TV, you just assume everybody dies … but there are a lot of women who survive.”
Although Tomlinson has passed her four-year milestone since being diagnosed, she encourages all women to get regular mammograms, citing that success in beating cancer is about early detection. “Just seeing other women cancer survivors at events like the Danskin really shows you that there is life after cancer,” she said. “Some of these women are probably healthier than they’ve ever been in their lives.
“It’s very empowering.”
Tim Watanabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (425) 867-0353, ext. 5054.