What the Olympics Taught Me About Cancer (and Vice Versa)
People are always asking how I stay so positive after all I’ve been through. Nine cancer diagnoses are enough to know that you cannot overcome cancer with positivity alone. But I believe it is simply better to be optimistic and push forward.
Competing at the international level in snowboarding taught me to persevere, a skill that has carried over into my battle with cancer. In 2000, I had my lower right leg amputated, thus switching my path from Olympics to Paralympics. At the time I didn’t see all the limitations, I saw possibilities. With cancer, you learn to be flexible.
Last year, when I was diagnosed with cancer for the eighth time, doctors told me they couldn’t do anything more for me. I was stunned at first, and my family and friends all felt the emotions of the prognosis with me. At that lowest point during this wild journey, when I was told to “prepare for the end,” my optimism allowed me to summon the perseverance that I had used throughout all of my Olympic training to find the right path for me. It was my positivity, perseverance and partnership with my husband Edwin that kept me fighting. And fighting is ultimately what saved me.
When faced with that devastating prognosis, Ed and I were in it fully together – we sought opinions from several physicians and experts and did endless research online. We talked to everyone we knew, spent nights and weekends scouring the internet. Finally, we found a promising option, a new MRI-directed radiation therapy in the United States called MRIdian that was proving to have good results with minimal side effects. We spent some stress-filled hours contemplating how to manage the logistical challenges and travel costs of my getting this treatment in Houston, Texas, where it was offered. We were determined to make this work, and even considered selling our house to afford the travel. Then, to our joyful surprise, we learned of a facility in Amsterdam, of all places, that featured the very technology we were reading about. What luck! We live a stone’s throw from Amsterdam.
We crossed our fingers and got the medical referral we needed. I was strong and ready to keep fighting for my second chance at life. After the treatment, the wait for the results was very emotional. I had to keep telling myself to stay positive and keep busy as it was often hard during this time when my worry would get the best of me. But I knew that staying positive is the key.
Finally, our appointment for the results revealed all our concerns were for nothing. My scan was clean! I will never forget the tremendous relief I felt when I heard the news that this treatment had worked, and our persistence had paid off. Soon, I was able to not only get back to my sport, but I was able to train hard enough to be back on the slopes at the Pyeongchang Paralympic Games again within two years.
I turned my perseverance back toward snowboarding, the absolute joy of my life. In addition to teaching me the all-important perseverance, snowboarding also gives me peace, focus and energy. I can put all my frustration, anger, happiness and sadness into it. It allows me to experience the joy that comes from pushing myself harder, and allows me to briefly forget about cancer.
While we all know you cannot cure cancer with positivity alone, staying positive allowed me the perseverance to explore all my options and offered me the clarity to discern what’s important, and that is what saved me. After nine cancer diagnoses, I won a gold medal in March in Pyeongchang Paralympics at age 45 – an absolute dream come true.