Out of tragedy, a triathlete triumphs
In the face of cancer, Champlin Park alum challenges herself with the help of Team In Training
On a typical day Theresa Burns can be found in the gym lifting weights, in the pool swimming laps or perhaps on her bike, even when the Minnesota temperatures would often chase others indoors.
Theresa is a triathlete, someone who enjoys putting her body through the paces of grueling events that combine swimming, biking and running, not only in the same day but consecutively. Yet, that wasn’t always the case for this Champlin native who, with her energetic personality, friendly smile and bright eyes is the picture of good health. In fact, while growing up Theresa says she was not the healthiest eater. She even goes so far as to label herself as overweight, although she was a rugby player while attending Champlin Park High School in the late 1990s.
Thanks to a bum knee and on recommendation of her doctor, Theresa took up rowing on the crew team at Drake University in Iowa. Still, that’s not what inspired her to transform herself into a triathlete. The inspiration for that comes from her personal battle with cancer.
THAT SINKING FEELING
In February 2010, Theresa was attending a professional conference at Northwestern Minnesota Health Science University in Bloomington. She visited a vendor who was selling vitamins. Their display included taking a blood sample from visitors to tell them what kinds of vitamins would best serve them. When Theresa’s blood sample came back with a super high white blood count the vendor recommended she come back the next day suggesting it was an error.
“Immediately I knew a high white blood count comes from two things,” said Theresa. “It is either caused by an infection or by cancer. I knew I was healthy, I felt great… so my mind didn’t even go to cancer.”
The next day, when Theresa’s blood sample came back with yet again a high blood count, they told her she should see a doctor. She had blood drawn that weekend from the university’s medical facility.
“I was racking my brain trying to think if I had an infected toenail or was getting over a cold. I didn’t know because I just felt really good,” she said. By Monday the doctors were telling her it was indeed cancer. It was a shock.
“I thought only sick people got cancer,” she said.
When she got the call, she was accompanying her boyfriend to the airport to see him off on a work trip. The day took an abrupt turn unfolding with a string of frantic calls to her primary care physician as well as a hematologist setting up appointments to confirm the results and get further testing.
“By the time I told my parents that night, it was very emotional,” she recalls.
If dealing with a cancer diagnosis wasn’t enough, Theresa was between jobs and her insurance was about to run out. But she doesn’t believe in coincidences.
“I don’t believe God gave me cancer but I believe He is responsible for the timeline of events,” said Theresa. “I believe I was diagnosed the way I was because of a higher power. He was looking out for me.”
Theresa says she tries not to play the “What If” game but she is a person who never goes to the doctor unless there is something so wrong she can’t fix it herself. Since she was healthy and never went to the doctor, she was planning on letting her insurance expire since she felt it was a waste of money. She had until the end of February to sign up for COBRA.
“It really was a fluke that I found out the way I did,” she said. She signed up for COBRA right away and within a month took a job with Morningstar Chiropractic where her hours actually provided her more flexibility to deal with doctors appointments and other aspects of her treatment.
PEDALING UP THE MOUNTAIN
It was Theresa’s sister, Amy Clark, an RN, who connected Theresa to an organization that changed their lives. Amy contacted the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) right away. Theresa received a wealth of material in just a couple days.
“I got the stuff from them even before I went to my first follow up appointment the Friday after my initial diagnosis,” she said. In the months to follow, Theresa went into full-on research mode relying on the LLS to help her navigate and learn everything she needed to know about the kind of cancer she had, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). She began a daily chemotherapy pill discovered by research funded in part by the LLS.
“It has been a life-saver, literally,” she said. Thanks to the targeted therapy medication, others have been able to live fulfilling lives for quite some time. However, she learned that CML most commonly affects people in their 60’s or older. At the time, Theresa was a single 26-year-old woman, with lots of hopes and dreams ahead of her, one being to start a family one day. Admittedly, she had concerns about how her diagnosis and medication would affect those hopes and dreams. When she asked the doctors they couldn’t give her an answer.
“The reality was, no one knew,” said Theresa.
The LLS stepped in again, connecting her with another woman in her late 20’s who had the same diagnosis and was taking the same medication. This woman had children after her diagnosis and therapy.
“It gave me hope to know that it is at least possible,” said Theresa. Still, Theresa decided to harvest some of her eggs as extra insurance for the future.
“I had to think about all of these things,” she said. “Not just about the here and now but down the road.”
She wasn’t alone. LLS connected her to support groups and even helped her with some financial assistance.
“From research to their resources, I’ve utilize virtually everything they have to offer,” she said. “When I got a better handle on things I starting thinking about ways to give back.”
HITTING HER STRIDE
Her friends and family, including her three sisters also were a tremendous support system. In fact, it was her sisters who signed up with the Society’s Team In Training that first year Theresa was diagnosed. Team In Training is a group of individuals who commit to raise a minimum amount of money for LLS. Team In Training is celebrating its 25th year as the world’s first and largest charity endurance sports training program. Since 1988, over 540,000 volunteers and participants have helped raise more than $1.32 billion toward the mission of The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In exchange for their fundraising commitment, participants have access to group training sessions led by a personal trainer as well as an individual training plan. Soon, Theresa joined her sisters on the Team In Training. Thus, her life as a triathlete was born.
Theresa’s life has transformed from the average journey and after a sharp turn into the dark, unknown territory of cancer, unemployment and questions about her future, she has emerged as an inspiration to others. Since 2010, she and her sisters have participated in Team In Training raising a combined $25,000. She has revamped her exercise and nutrition habits so that she says she is healthier now, even living with cancer, than she has ever been.
Her third year of training will begin Feb. 4. Group training sessions could include swim practice, bike rides or time in the gym to strength train or run on the treadmill. Team In Training offers three meetings weekly alternating the locations around the metro to accommodate the nearly 100 members of the triathlon team, which includes Theresa and her sisters. There is also a bicycling team and a trail running team.
Theresa is training for the Team In Training event, the Door County Ironman Half Marathon in July. It begins with a 1.2 mile swim in Horseshoe Bay followed by a 56 mile bike ride through the main retail district in Sturgeon Bay including a 200 foot ascent up the famed Door County Bluff, capped off with a 13.1 mile run through Egg Harbor including a half-mile 200 foot climb through Bluff Pass Road. She will participate in other events throughout the year but this one is specifically for Team In Training.
While she does some training on her own, she finds the group training to be very motivational. Each session starts with a Mission Moment where one or more members share their journey or talk about who and why they are participating.
“It reminds us why we’re there,” she said. “Running by yourself, it’s easy to give up after two miles. It’s boring, it’s hard. But the team doesn’t let you quit and you don’t want to quit so you push yourself more than you ever would alone.”
That’s what she said she and many other members carry with them through the training and competition process.
“When it starts to hurt, think of that person that’s dealing with cancer and going through chemotheraphy,” she said. “If they can go through that pain, then we can keep on going through the pain we’re experiencing too.”
In the end, Theresa feels it’s her duty and obligation to give back to LLS.
“They gave my family and me so much and made my journey so much easier,” she said.
Also, she has something to prove, both to herself and to others.
“I want to prove that someone with cancer can do this,” she said. She doesn’t take it easy on herself. While her initial goal was to be a finisher, she continues to challenge herself each year, now with goals to see how well she can perform.
“At first I was training just to finish, now I train to do well,” she said. And she certainly seems to be doing well. While she can’t say for sure what her prognosis is, simply because the doctors don’t know, in November 2011, she achieved a milestone of zero on all her bloodwork and biopsies. They celebrated by throwing a Big Fat Zero Party in downtown Minneapolis.
In addition to facing her battle with cancer head-on, remember that boyfriend she accompanied to the airport the day she got the call about her cancer? They are planning a December 2013 wedding in the Dominican Republic.
“He’s been my rock through all of it,” said Theresa.
Her future goals include living medication free within the next five years, completing a full Ironman Triathlon — consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run — and perhaps even becoming a mom.
Contact Mindy Mateuszczyk at email@example.com