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Kathy Smith's story- A tale of a one-lunged triathlete

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http://blog.lungevity.org/2011/06/28/a- ... riathlete/

A Tale of a One-Lunged TriathleteJune 28th, 2011 - by Kathy Smith

So I am not exactly sure where this story begins but here is what you need to know:

I lost my left lung to a rare and aggressive cancer in 2005.

Nope, I never smoked.

I was DX a month after my 29th birthday.

And most importantly, Strong is the New Skinny!

SO most people get cancer and lose a ton of weight. The chemo diet is the most effective weight loss plan on the market but not me! No I get cancer and GAIN 80 lbs. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the maintenance meds are making it impossible to lose the weight now that I am cancer free. So I am in my early 30’s, down a pretty important organ and up way too much in weight! I would say to you the word frustrating, but it is a bit too mild. I would say it isn’t fair, but that would be whining. So I will simply say fat is better than dead. I don’t worry about the number on the scale. It isn’t all that important. What I do worry about is being healthy enough to run around with my niece and nephews, about being able to help my friends move, about playing inner tube water polo at the Y in the winter and about being able to climb the stairs at Gillette Stadium to watch my Patriots win. So I figured I better get the heck off the couch and start doing something.

I will be the first to admit that “doing something” and doing a triathlon is not necessarily the same thing, but I figured why not… I won’t win but at least I will TRI..(Get it? TRI?) The idea came to me about a year and a half ago. A friend was training for her first TRI and was having a blast. I have always enjoyed cycling and pretty much grew up in the water so swimming and biking seemed like a good fit. I thought if I ignored the fact there was a run at the end of the race that everything would be fine. I hate running. I really, really hate it. It is definitely a TWO lung sport! The O2 your body needs to keep pushing forward while running is amazing. The fact that anyone can do it is one of the miracles of the human body.

I attempted to do my first event last summer. It was a disaster. It was 95 degrees with 97% humidity. I threw up a couple times and have no recollection of the run, but they tell me I finished. I decided that didn’t count. I want to enjoy a triathlon not just be in it. So the Minuteman Sprint Tri in East Freetown MA became my new goal. I am not going to worry about time. I am not competing with anyone but me. (Okay and maybe the Doctors that said I couldn’t). I just want to jump in the water and enjoy the day.

I have been doing a lot of cardio work this winter. Combat Cardio to be exact. It is like kick boxing on crack. We work our butts off. Literally. I love it. I can’t keep up with everyone, but I love it. They have fancy functioning respiratory systems and don’t have to chart the meds they take. So I don’t worry about keeping up. Sometime I worry about standing up but not keeping up. Most of the women in this class have lost an average of 40 lbs since they started. I have only lost 15 lbs, but I am stronger than I have ever been. Not sure that being able to throw a mean left hook will come in handy, but I will put it in the tool belt.

Race day is June 18, 2011

It is the middle of May and I feel STRONG. My legs are solid and I can ride for hours without looking back. I love being in the pool. Swimming is far from easy, but it is fun. I am still ignoring the run, because I just can’t do it. I run for 200 yards and gasp for air. I can feel my heart beating in my ears. I try to run a couple times a week, but I don’t get very far. The cardio classes are helping. But running hurts, and I am bad at it. So I am staying in denial. I am okay with that.

It is now June 5th. Less than two weeks until race day. I woke up this morning dizzy and shaky. My throat is nearly swollen shut. I can’t swallow ice cream. I have a fever. I know that when I get sick I normally go all out. Not colds or sore throats for me. I get strep and pneumonia. My doctors tell me this time it is strep with both ears infected. My lung is clear but tight. There are 13 days until the Tri, and I am given 10 days of antibiotics. Antibiotics make it tough for me to keep food in. When I can’t keep food down, I always get a chest cold. I am going to do everything I can to sleep and rest and eat, but it is going to be a long 10 days!

Race week


Still on the antibiotics but I am starting to feel human. I am nervous that my lung isn’t going to be ready for Saturday. The infection traveled to my chest at the end of last week. No pneumonia, but breathing was slow and stressful.


In the water for the first time in 2 weeks and the last time before the race. My time is 2 minutes slower than it was last time, and I am weak and exhausted when I get out of the pool. Ugh!


My nephew came by the house tonight and dropped off a special trikathlon (as he says) wrist band. I think it is one of those titanium things, but he told me it would help me stay strong while I raced. I needed that. I forgot this was supposed to be fun. I forgot having strep throat wasn’t the worst thing that had happened to me. I forgot there are a couple of amazing 6 year olds cheering me on. I got stuck in my own head for a few days and it took Jack about 2 seconds to knock me right out of that… Thanks buddy.


Last day of the drugs! A good night sleep and an excuse to carb load!! Bagels for breakfast. Pasta for dinner. I am feeling excited. Not ready but excited. The weather is looking great and the water is reported at 70 degrees.

Friday: What was I thinking? Whose idea was this? A triathlon? I. HAVE. ONE. LUNG.

I am traveling to the race site tonight with 3 friends that are doing a relay team. Thankfully, they are equally excited and nervous. Woo-hoo…

Kathy Smith

Saturday: GAME DAY!

I slept for less than 3 hours last night. There were a couple of drunks in the hallway around 2 am that almost got to see that left hook! I am feeling pretty good this morning. The hotel started serving breakfast at 5am. Funny to see a room full of spandex clad strangers inhaling food and scoping out the competition. I am scoping out the waffles. The competition doesn’t concern me.

At 6:10 we pull out of the hotel and are on the road to the race site. I am in race mode now. I am nervous, excited and still trying to figure out if there is enough time in transition for a nap. I set up my transition area like everyone else around me. At least I look like I know what I am doing. I need to get in the water before I start. I don’t own a wet suit. Thus, I am not wearing one. 70 degree water sounds great, but it is still cold at 6:30 in the morning. I jump in to discover that my assigned swim cap is defective and isn’t cut open. I scurry back to the registration tent to replace it and then back into the water. Some of these people are pretty serious. I hope I don’t get in their way. I am fully aware this is only a .25 mile swim, but looking at the buoys I am suddenly thinking we are swimming the English Channel. We are 15 minutes behind schedule. I don’t like late. I don’t like it one bit… They finally call the waves into place, and we prepare to hit the water. The ankle timing chips beep as we walk over the start mat. I guess it is official. I am doing a triathlon. As I am standing in the water waiting for the go, I feel something touching my back. I turn my head and there is a woman touching my scar! I pulled away and she looked at me like I was crazy. I said “excuse me.. Do you need something?” She looked at me like I was the one out of line and said “just wanted to know what happened to you.” I was annoyed yet suddenly grateful all at the same time. “I had lung cancer. Lost my left lung 5 years ago”. Saying it out loud as I stood there knee deep in the water felt awesome. I HAD LUNG CANCER, I LOST MY LUNG, BUT I AM STANDING HERE READY TO DO A TRIATHLON!! I want to scream it at the top of my lung but there wasn’t time. The clock beeped, and we were off! I let the crowd pass and started my swim. About three strokes in, I remembered that I hate fresh water lakes. They are dark and you can’t see the bottom. Panic set in quickly as I was instantly convinced that there were snakes in the lake and they were after me. Gasping is frowned upon when your face is in the water. Laughing while you choke on lake water makes swimming hard. The idea of one snake quickly turned to a pack of snakes and those snakes suddenly became cotton mouths. The pack was simultaneously chasing me and fleeing from an alligator. Let’s say that my breathing wasn’t exactly rhythmic. I was moving through the water but form had gone out the window. I could feel every breath in my lung. I focused on inhaling and tried to remind myself of the days when inhaling wasn’t a given. I could feel the muscles in my back pull as I extended past the surgical site. It took me a lot longer to get out of the water than I had hoped but I did it, I got out of the water. I ran into transition excited and still moving. Time to hop on the bike. This is my strong leg. I will relax while I pedal and regain my breath. I watched people fly through transition. I kind of laughed. I grabbed a quick granola bar and dried off my feet and got myself together before I took off. Once I started riding, I immediately felt better. I started to pass people. I started to talk with folks on the course. I had on my Lungevity T-shirt and people starting asking questions. How are you doing this? YOU had lung cancer? I was suddenly a rolling PSA. “Yes I am lung cancer. I ride for the parents you lost, for the friends that have passed and for those who are yet to know this battle.” I only grabbed the inhaler once and came into transition feeling like I was invincible. I hopped off the bike and switched to my running shoes, lost the helmet and grabbed my hat. A quick drink of Gatorade and I was on my way out of the transition area. Just about the time my chip beeped to let me know I was on the third and final leg I realized I had a 4 mile run ahead of me. So much for invincible. Denial is a great place to visit but a tough place to leave. I jogged. Then I walked. Then I jogged. Then I walked. This was going to be a very long 4 miles. One by one all those folks I passed on the bike ran by me. I was getting frustrated. I would try to run for 2 minutes and then walk for 2 then run again but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t get my breath and my heart was racing. A quick look at my wrist and I remembered that my niece and nephew didn’t care about my time. They didn’t care if everyone else on course was eating cheese burgers before I got in. I started to think about friends I have lost to cancer and to the pain this stupid disease has caused so many I love. I flashed back on the days when climbing a flight of stairs was a team effort. I thought about what I was asking my body to do and marveled at how well it was doing. I suddenly found myself at the mile 3 water station. The timing chip had started to cut into my heel and there was a nasty blister forming on the ball of my right foot, but I was almost there. I cheered for the cyclists flying by on the half iron man course and talked to the photographers and course marshals as I made my way to the finish line. I ran the last 150 yards. I crossed the finish line and was soon wearing my medal and grabbing a drink. I had done it. I finished a triathlon. I had fun. I didn’t pass out. I didn’t puke! I was pretty tired but really proud. The heavens didn’t open and there wasn’t a parade, but I did it.

My body has officially gone from the brink of death to the finish line of a triathlon. Who knew!

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  • 3 months later...

Kathy sent me this story before she submitted it to the blog. Words simply cannot explain how inspired I am by Kathy's story. I feel that Kathy's story is one that can relate to many people, and in many different ways. I feel very lucky to know Kathy.

**She is also a very good 'Words With Friends' player!! :wink:**

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